Tarriona “Tank” Ball made a list of the great things Tank and the Bangas experienced in 2019. It’s a long list: a Grammy Award nomination for best new artist; performing at Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater, the Library of Congress, the Glastonbury Festival in the United Kingdom and AFROPUNK Fest in Paris; the group’s national TV debut on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon; filming a performance for Austin City Limits; dropping Green Balloon, the band’s major label debut; meeting Michelle Obama; becoming friends with Jill Scott; and Ball’s solo appearances in Vogue and Essence magazines.
“That’s a hell of a year,” she said.
Tank and the Bangas accomplished all that even though the band never sets goals or timelines. Instead, manager Tavia Osbey said, “we speak what we want into manifestation and keep the work going until it happens.”
This year, 2020, looks like another beautiful year for the New Orleans band that blends poetry, whimsy, funk, rap, R&B and jazz into intoxicating music and performance. In early January, Tank and the Bangas made its Jam Cruise debut. In late January, the band traveled to Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards. Also in January, the group kicked off Season 2 of OffBeat’s acclaimed original video series, “OnBeat Sessions,” which can be viewed in the digital version of this cover story.
On February 7, Ball will reign over Krewe Bohème’s Mardi Gras parade as the Supreme Green Fairy. She’ll ride in a 12-foot-high bottle that represents absinthe, the green elixir that historically inspired writers and artists. Krewe Bohème’s walking parade features handmade throws and an emphasis on artistry and the Bohemian spirit, said Bri Whetstone, the krewe’s communications director. “When we were considering who our Supreme Green Fairy would be this year, Tank was the obvious choice,” Whetstone said. “She’s so talented, she’s so avant-garde. Her style perfectly encapsulates what we do.”
“I’ve been working the green,” the vivacious Ball said during a coffee shop interview with Bangas drummer Joshua Johnson and alto saxophonist and flutist Albert Allenback (bassist Norman Spence is the fourth Banga). For instance, Verve Forecast Records released Green Balloon, the band’s second album, in May. Green isn’t Ball’s favorite color, “but it just stood for a lot of things, so it’s perfect that I can be the Green Fairy.”
On February 28, following Mardi Gras and three Tank and the Bangas shows in Japan, the band will launch a North American tour with fellow New Orleans band the Revivalists. The tour’s dozen dates include Radio City Music Hall. A ten-date European trek will follow in March and April.
Recent years saw many lights turn green for Tank and the Bangas. In April 2019, a few weeks before the release of Green Balloon, Tank and the Bangas appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Ball and Allenback were anxious about their national TV debut. And now Allenback only remembers doing the show in his dreams. Johnson, on the other hand, rolled with it. “I was fine,” he said. “Right before we performed, the dude backstage said something that made me even more ready. ‘All they’re here for now is you. It’s y’all’s stage.’ And it seemed almost like a normal show, even though it was only three minutes, that one song. But we treated it like a whole show. We caught people’s attention at the beginning. I watched them get enthralled.”
On January 2, 2020, Tank and the Bangas band returned to NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center for an appearance on the network’s morning show, Today. Having appeared often on New Orleans morning shows, Today was a piece of cake.
“I thank God for WDSU and News with a Twist,” Ball said. “They prepared us so much. And after all those mornings getting up at five to go chat with Sally-Ann Roberts (at WWL), the Today show felt natural.” Allenback lost his fear of national TV, too. “While we were doing it, I was like, ‘We’re grooving.’”
Tiny Desk, big step
Winning National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk contest in 2017 boosted Tank and the Bangas’ national profile enormously. Ten judges unanimously picked the New Orleans band from more than 6,000 music video submissions. The judges included singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio from Phish. “I immediately loved this,” Anastasio told NPR’s Morning Edition. “Tank is a force of nature, just full of joy—and her band is killing in the background.” More praise came from All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen. “It all felt so organic and on-the-spot, just like the best Tiny Desk concerts,” he wrote in the official announcement.
Tank and the Bangas filmed the winning, iPhone-shot music video for “Quick” in two takes in a classroom at Joseph S. Clark High School. “We didn’t have much time to do it because the guys had to go practice with Big Freedia,” Ball said. And the bell rang, calling students back to class in the school where Ball once taught. Later, even before the Tiny Desk win, the “Quick” video went viral, bringing the band more fans and gigs. It has since been viewed more than 12-million times.
Ball and the Bangas learned of their Tiny Desk victory during a conference call with NPR. “I was taking a walk in my neighborhood amongst the Asian ladies,” Ball remembered. “They have their own little community and they walk a lot.” During the call, Johnson, who then knew little about how powerful public radio is to music, whispered questions, asking “What’s NPR?”
Allenback knew Tiny Desk was significant, but he didn’t realize how vast the program’s reach is. “Overnight,” he remembered, “our Facebook likes went from 12,000 to 30,000. And it just kept going up.” “That joint, Tiny Desk, is universal,” Johnson said. “People in Europe, who cannot say anything else to us, will come up and say ‘Tank and the Bangas—tiny desk, little desk, little table.’ We’ll be like, ‘Oh, we know where you know us from.”
After Tiny Desk, Ball said, “the gigs, oh, my God, the venues, how they changed—the fans, how they changed. It was crazy. And when we did the Tiny Desk tour, Bob Boilen was so excited. We saw the difference between being in a little bitty club and being in a huge venue. Some days we are still in a little bitty club, but you’re grateful for all the parties that you get to attend.”
In 2018, Ball moved from Tiny Desk contestant to judge. “I believe that we changed the Tiny Desk dynamics,” she said. “When I judged it the next year, there were so many more poets trying out. Poets I knew! And it was more diverse. I know that people saw us and were influenced by us. We actually picked up the remote and changed the channel! That’s amazing.”
Record companies come courting
The Tiny Desk triumph put Tank and the Bangas on record companies’ radar. “Tiny Desk,” Ball said, “is probably responsible for all of those people wanting to be a part of our lives.” The major label suitors included Danny Bennett, then president and CEO of the Verve Label Group (and the son of singer Tony Bennett). During Bennett’s three years of leading Verve and its sister labels, he signed acts beyond Verve’s traditional jazz and classical music, including Lyle Lovett and T Bone Burnett.
Bennett and Verve, Ball said, “were persistent as heck. They were at almost every show, with flowers. We went to dinner at great places all the time. At one point, we were like, ‘Naw. We’re not signing with those people. That’s not the direction we’re going to go.’ But Danny Bennett took us out for a late-night dinner at a little place in New York and had a heart-to-heart conversation with us. He truly convinced us, saying, ‘We’re with you. We believe in what you’re doing.’”
Verve’s contemporary roster, which includes New Orleans pianist and Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste—and the company’s great legacy—impressed Tank and the Bangas. Diana Krall and Andrea Bocelli are the label’s biggest selling contemporary artists. Its vast catalog of classic jazz includes Nina Simone, Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane. And after Sweet Crude opened for Tank and the Bangas at Brooklyn Bowl, Verve signed that New Orleans band, too.
Making national waves
Following the May 2019 release of Green Balloon, Danny Bennett’s faith in Tank and the Bangas proved deserved. National publications poured forth praise. “There’s no record quite like Green Balloon, and no band quite like Tank and the Bangas,” NPR Music noted. “Bathing theatrical hip-hop, soul, funk and spoken-word poetry in the lush musicality of its New Orleans home,” The New Yorker wrote, “Green Balloon floats on the effervescent energy that captivated the Internet two years ago.” Time magazine cited Ball’s “elastic, surprising voice that oozes energy, turning simple lyrics into full stories just with a twist of the syllables.”
On November 20, 2019, Tank and the Bangas woke up to find they’d received a Grammy nomination for best new artist. The Recording Academy nominates artists for the award “if their eligibility year release/s achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness and notably impacted the musical landscape.” Founded in 2012 though Tank and the Bangas was, Ball realizes that because Verve Forecast released the band’s major label album debut in 2019, the group is still new to many. “It’s like being new to the music industry,” she said. “And all of this does feel like a big new, even though we feel prepared for it.”
Responding to the Grammy nomination, Sacks & Co., Tank and the Bangas’ New York City-based publicist, released a collective statement: “This moment is for every open mic, garage band and underground movement that ever took place. We’re reminded by this nomination that anything is possible. Tank and the Bangas are possible.”
The stellar acts in the running for the best new artist Grammy this year include Lizzo, Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish, Black Pumas, Rosalía, Yola and Maggie Rogers. “A lot of people had an amazing year,” Ball said of the competition. “We’ve never had that MTV, BET situation that those other artists have had. We have no songs that have been high on Billboard. We don’t have the same weapons that those other nominees have, but we’re still in for the fight. And we truly believe we’re just as worthy. Fo’ sho’.”
Other 2019 breakthroughs for Tank and the Bangas include the group’s appearances in America’s great concert venues. At Carnegie Hall, Ball felt the venue’s legendary vibe intensely. “The room was so beautiful, huge and intimate,” she said. “I felt so confident and poised.” “And you sounded confident,” Allenback agreed. In Carnegie Hall, a performance space renowned for its superb acoustics, “sometimes you’ve got to play drums with your fingertips,” Bangas drummer and music director Johnson added. “But if you get the right drumming, you can make drums sing in that room.”
At the Apollo Theater, another palace of American music and culture, Ball felt history around her. Following tradition, she touched the venue’s famous Tree of Hope, a stump that’s said to bring Apollo performers luck. “We thought that nobody was going to come,” Ball said of the Apollo show. “They told us, ‘Oh, the ticket sales are moving slow.’ And I wondered if the audience was going to be reserved, bourgeois.” To the contrary, the theater filled up and, Allenback said, “when we started, they jumped out of their seats.”
Michelle Obama attended the band’s performance at the Library of Congress. “She’s a fan,” Ball said. “The Obamas had the White House rocking.”
At Diaspora Songs, the Angélique Kidjo-curated concert at Carnegie Hall, Tank and the Bangas shared the bill with New Orleans artists Terence Blanchard, Jon Batiste and Quiana Lynell. “I love it when we travel places and meet up with New Orleans people,” Ball said. “It is a built-in chemistry and conversation. We can talk about anything and it’s easy.” During her band’s travels, she encounters New Orleans talent all the time, Ball said, “no matter what part of the country or the world we’re in.”
Ball evolved from poet to singer-songwriter after her success at slam poetry contests. She was a member of Team SNO (Slam New Orleans) when the group won National Poetry Slam Championships in 2011, 2012 and 2013. After that, she knew it was time to reach higher. “We had won the biggest competition we could win,” she said. “And I wanted to combine music and poetry in a serious way that could be impactful and not limited to three-minutes and ten-seconds. What I was doing before with slam poetry, that’s how much time you had on stage.”
Ball and her manager personally delivered tickets to her first musical show, which sold out. In March 2011, Osbey, having been Ball’s part-time manager for five months, quit the two jobs she had to be a full-time manager. Ball had already given her music career a vote of confidence by leaving her job at IHOP. “Tarriona’s real, she’s raw, she’s inspiring,” Osbey said. “She is one of my biggest inspirations to move forward in management. She showed me how to believe in myself. She does that for others as well.”
Future Tank and the Bangas drummer and music director Johnson attended Ball’s second music show. He made his way backstage afterward to critique her performance, “as musicians do in New Orleans,” Johnson explained. Despite the critique, “I saw a whole lot of beautiful potential.”
“Josh was only supposed to come and write some sheet music for me,” Ball remembered. “So, all of my music could be ready, so that I could go up to anyplace and give it to the musicians to play. But then Josh never left.”
Early on, Ball and Johnson both identified as outsider artists. “I was around the outcasts,” he said. “The ones who weren’t always getting calls for work. We weren’t the cool kids.” “Everybody was an underdog, for sure,” Ball said. “But I didn’t mind that I wasn’t cool. I didn’t really like the cool kids that much. But I liked my friends. I liked who I was. I liked what I was doing. As long as you like yourself, it’s all good.” “We are out of left field,” said Allenback, a Banga since 2014.
“But the funny part to us now,” Johnson mused, “is that our left field has started to become centerfield for everybody else.”
On top of the group’s talent and inventiveness, Osbey believes Tank and the Bangas are spiritually connected. “We all believed in Tank very early on,” she said. “We pray with and for each other. And none of us is afraid to do the work. Tank also believes in everyone here. And no one person is above the group. That’s special.” O
Tarriona “Tank” Ball will reign as Krewe Bohème’s Supreme Green Fairy beginning at 7 p.m. February 7. The parade begins in the Marigny, continues through the French Quarter and ends near the Joy Theater, site of Krewe Bohème’s Absinthe Ball.