Tank and the Bangas' Funk-Soul Ensemble Puts Poetry In Motion

Photos by Michael Salisbury

Photos by Michael Salisbury

Tank and the Bangas are a force of nature. Their music doesn’t seem to operate by the same laws of physics that keep other artists tethered to the ground. Look up, you’ll see notes and lyricism flying from the unpredictable ensemble. Keep listening and the music will have you flying too.

The large ensemble is fronted by Tarriana "Tank" Ball, a musical being leading the band with her vocals and pen. There's 9 other members of the band, plus their manager Tavia, who they credit as the glue that holds them together. You see a genuine affection between them, and that charisma comes out in their music. "...It's a family, we're out here in these countries, on the road. You have to look out for each other, nobody else will." Each member is of equal importance, so we would be remiss not to name them all. Joshua Johnson is the drummer / musical director, , Norman Spence plays bass and synth, Jonathan Johnson on bass as well, Merell Burkett hitting the keyboard.  Joe Johnson plays keyboard too, Jelly Johson and Kayla Buggage are backing vocals, and Alfred Allenback rocks the woodwinds with flute and Alto Sax.  

They hail from New Orleans (one exception being Montgomery, AL), a fitting home for a group that strikes as a creative autonomic nervous system. Tank and the Bangas’ goal is taking their music highest level they can, and Alfred Allenbeck checks off the priorities - "Writing and recording. Put together a good body of work. Putting on a good live show, live performance, we want to be the best live performers ever. To sound like the record, live, to have the energy live and sound like the record live." Theyre' on the way there. Tank and the Bangas have been playing, practicing, touring since 2011. 

Each member is a multi-instrumentalist, allowing them to shift seamlessly from sound to sound. As Tank explains, "everybody in this group plays 2 instruments or more. Jonathan plays bass and tuba. Meryl plays keys and trumpet. Albert, saxophone and flute. Norman, everything.  Josh is a drummer and plays a little bit of keys. I'm the singer and I do poetry. Everybody does something else." It contributes to their sense of motion, one of their defining characteristics. Ebb and flow, start on one song, move into a jam, then loop it all back. Tank’s singing can go from belting out powerful vocals to an off-kilter, conversational quality with the audience stemming from her spoken word background.  

Her passion for poetry goes back to her childhood, when her mother gave her the poem "A Great Somebody" by Adrienne Sealy Hardesty. From there she had the bug, and began participating in Slams in New Orleans. It's with this knowledge that you begin to understand why her lyricism is such a standout element of the band, impacting the listener even during the most raucous of performances. On "Human", she draws a metaphor between the beauty and change of the body, and the passing of time itself. "I guess you should never become complacent while living life on a shelf / nerve impulses to and from the brain travel as fast as 180 miles / and our ears, they never stop growing / there is a reason for every limb and interaction / my god, its like he created it like an instrument."

On "Rollercoaster", Tank uses the imagery of amusement parks to illustrate the highs and lows that we all go through. "I've always wondered why some people rode roller coasters / why the feeling of throwing up brought about some type of excitement / that they didn't receive on a regular day / when did sickness become equivalent to thrill / when did nausea become the new X pill"

In writing and music, she's inspired by everyone from the poet Sunni Patterson to Smino and Noname (all three of which she specifically mentions by name, unsolicited). What's most clear is that her love for words is rivaled only by her love for emotive music. "Boxes and Squares" discusses love, but I like to think of it as breaking down her approach to writing - "You are like a square / Full of the words that's in the air / I've got a mouth full of questions, baby / You've got a box empty with my answers."

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The combo of poetry, funk and soul is strong and allows for versatile songwriting. Always introspective, each song has its own narrative, focusing on unique subjects or perspectives. Discussing the myriad of ways they create, Alfred states "It can come from a beat, it can come from a jam session, lyrics, one person or six people, a poem, from Tank. She likes to record and send mouth noises, the rhythm of the ring, anything. A lot of different angles, and that's why it sounds like it is. No real formula."

The lack of formula makes for an insane live show. No doubt, they lit up their North Coast '17 set. Spontaneity is everything, and they comment that "the best songs are in our sound check. Right in the moment, and some people have caught a few of them. Right in the moment, that's when it's just 'whooo'. We're just jamming, like let's go,  and then you can refine it later."  As they move from one song to the next, tracks feel like multi-part movements. It’s the kind of performance where your jaw may drop a little and you ask yourself "how did they do that?" 

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And Tank. Oh, Tank. I feel comfortable saying she's one of the most gifted vocalists / leads to a band that you'll ever see. Her voice swells and shrinks at command, and her words might bring tears to your eyes ( “Rollercoasters”...yeesh). Can't emphasize enough how special she is as an artist. But importantly,  Tank and the Bangas is a team effort, and she would never want to take credit for herself. The reason she shines so brightly is because of the incredibly talented friends on stage illuminating her, and their band as a whole. From the moment Tank joined forces with a band at the time known as "Black Star Bangas", this group has always been greater than the sum of its parts. 

While they've been performing for years, since a fateful video on NPR that went viral, the world is starting to recognize their talents more and more. It's a big deal for them, "...it's like looking at your heroes, your heroes looking at you at eye level, it's crazy. Like, you didn't just come into this world and 'oh, I'm a star', everybody worked. The world just happens to see the work after the work. 'Oh you just made it, just came around the corner!'. No, we've been traveling about 6 years, 2 people in the club, still going hard every time. We've been doing this for a while, so it's amazing to get that recognition and come home with more than 2 dollars."

They've got an album on the way, but they're not letting out a peep about it other than that it's "on the way". They do let slip that they've got a whole new live setup to go with it - out with the old, in with the new. But regardless, your takeaway should be this - put them in your ears, put them in your eyes, just make sure you witness Tank and the Bangas.