Tank and the Bangas: Poetry in Motion

For Tarriona “Tank” Ball, frontwoman for the Grammy-nominated band Tank and the Bangas, everything began when she stole a glance at her older sister’s private diary. The two shared a bedroom growing up, so when Tank had the chance, at 11 years old, she peered through the handwritten pages. In them, she found stories, poetic lines, and general expressions that sparked her imagination. She wanted to do that, too—write. Today, Tank can still remember some of the lines. It was those diary entries that would inspire Tank to write her poetry, which then took her to the New Orleans open mics where she would meet her future bandmates. And on May 13, Tank and the Bangas unveiled their latest studio LP, Red Balloon, which showcases the group’s lush sonic chemistry and Tank’s knack for poignant lyricism. 

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“I memorized her poetry by heart,” Tank tells American Songwriter. “And I still know her poems by heart.”

When it comes to her creativity, her family has always been the source. Tank remembers her father, a singer, who sounded like Stevie Wonder. Now deceased, her father would sing all the time and made sure his children did, too. He had big dreams for himself and his kids, which is one of the reasons Tank believes she’s such a hard worker in the field of music today. 

“That’s one of the main reasons I’m doing what I’m doing,” she says. “Somebody had to keep it going.”

Whether she’s decked out in an emerald-green jumpsuit or a fiery red feather boa, Tank is a magnet for eyes and ears. At first, occupying a stage wasn’t her intent. It was poetry only. Her sisters sang better, she told herself. So, her fortunes would rest in her written words. This led Tank to slam poetry competitions, in which she was quite successful, and later to open mics in the Crescent City. Soon, she realized music could be the soundtrack to her writings. From this discovery came her now-famous band. 

“The open mics are where we got this real vibe about us,” Tank says. “This naturalness, freeness. There was a creative and organic feel from which it came. We kept that going.”

Working in music, specifically, Tank found freedom that no other undertaking quite offered. She could traverse in the keen language of poetry and the delightful, even-garish flavor of performance that New Orleans, where her multi-piece band formed, engenders. 

“I come from being just a powerful performer, period, from the slam world,” Tank says. “You’ve got to grab five random judges’ attention. You’ve got to be very intentional with it. That prepared me so much for being with this band.”

Since the band’s official formation in 2011, the group has gone on to earn prestigious accolades and distinctions. Of course, Tank appreciates them and doesn’t take them for granted. In fact, she has a beautiful metaphor. It’s like 5,000 leaves drop from the sky to the ground and you pick one up and it has your name on it. Yet, despite the thrill, Tank says the way she and her group consider performance, it doesn’t matter whether there are one or one million people at a given show. It’s this resolve that has helped them earn recognition. To date, Tank and the Bangas are the only band from New Orleans to be nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammys and the only one to win the coveted NPR Tiny Desk Concert competition. 

“Our fans have supported us from day one,” Tank says. “We’re a real fan band. I’ve started to realize that even more so. They’ve just supported us and they’ve loved us. Some have been at every single show.”

During the pandemic, when shows slowed down to a halt, Tank and company were afforded the chance to slow down. With their free time, they were able to explore and hone in on their vision in the studio. The result is their new LP, which is diverse both sonically and in guest appearances, featuring artists from Big Freedia to Wayne Brady and Questlove. It also features Tank’s poetry on the intimate track, “Black Folk,” which lists the qualities Tank adores of her people. 

“I love this album,” Tank simply says.

With all of the success, Tank knows the fame that can come with it can be fraught. She’s seen it ruin some of her heroes. Yet, she continues to work at her career. In so doing, she’s shared cuts of the new album with her peers, Esperanza Spalding, Jill Scott, Lalah Hathaway, and others. It’s important to keep your peers abreast of your insights and creative risks. It’s the stuff that breathes life into Tank and the Bangas.

“I love that music can be therapeutic,” says Tank. “I love that you can listen to a song and it can bring you to a place. Or it can help you out of a place. I love that it can save lives. That’s a very important job in this world.” 

Photo by Jeremy Tauriac

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