New Orleans has long been fertile ground for the musical arts, but the music played here today in the birthplace of jazz varies wildly. You get hip-hop producer Mannie Fresh working on Flow Tribe’s new funk record while the Deslondes are touring with their St. Roch honky-tonk. Big Freedia helped create bounce music, while Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra infused Puerto Rican beats into her blues.
“Theatrical soul” is another breakout New Orleans sound, one grown from the spoken-word poetry scene. Tank and the Bangas have recorded only one studio album, but Tarronia Ball, the poet and lead singer — first nicknamed “Tank” by her LSU Tiger father — has big plans for her band. Since the Bangas bested 6,000 applicants to win NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, they have been traveling the world in “newfound fame,” and Ball has been writing.
We spoke by phone this summer, a couple days after Bob Dylan accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature, a landmark moment that solidified the overlap between music and the literary arts. We talked about his Nobel Lecture in which Dylan shares his influences, from rock and roll to characters in books, and ties it all together with a line from Homer: “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”
Ball’s got some stories to tell. On a tour stop in London, Ball remembers walking alone to think and write new material, then finding inspiration at a park playground — “an awesome space” for her imagination. She enjoyed the kids’ “honest perspectives.” She remembers their words.
“Are you from America?” Ball says in a spot-on British accent, “Do you know Beyonce?”
Ball comes from “a family full of pastors and preachers,” she says, and she remains active in her church. Christian faith remains her driving force, acting out that John 10:10 admonition that Jesus came so that God’s children may live life more abundantly.
Music is Ball’s way to shine that positivity back on her audience. For Ball, performing on stage is an opportunity to make “people excited about the freakin' beautiful life that they're living.”
“Growing up in church, I got to see a lot of people coming in sad and hopeless and leaving out ready to take on the week,” she says. “And if not ready to take on the week, then you are gonna take on a different part of yourself.”
The Bangas’ genre-busting sound has been described as “Disney funk,” and even “the future of New Orleans music,” but Ball refuses to define it, focusing more so on the subject matter.
“I feel like we make life music [about] feelings, heart-to-heart, which everybody has, about the parts of the body, which every person is—a body, and what’s stirring inside of them,” she says. “Everything I talk about is mostly about people, because people go through the same things. And that needs to be remembered.”
For example, in “Human,” Ball marvels at the common wonder of the human body: “You’re special even / Your body was made especially extravagant / Extra human …you’re a walking Monet / You’re breathing art and you know it.” She then describes the muscular phenomena that enable human speech, occasionally misused as weaponry, and gets down to the anatomical level. “There is a reason for every limb and interaction / Body / My God / It’s like he created an instrument / Every year about 98 percent of the atoms in your body is replaced / You were born with 300 bones / And when you get to be an adult you have 206 / Grow up / Grow out of things.”
Ball started writing poetry, and when she was 15, a teacher recommended she sing her poems. That was before Hurricane Katrina came and the levees failed at the start of her senior year of high school, displacing Ball and her family to Indianapolis. Her family’s house got only a couple inches of water, but the mold kept them out for 18 months.
One of her influences is the poet Warsan Shire, whose words Beyonce samples throughout “Lemonade.” She reads other poets such as Sunni Patterson and Joshua Bennett, but she’s currently reading a book about meditation and listening to English composer Brian Eno.
She says her words and beats “become literally one voice with multiple layers.” That’s how a Tank and the Bangas show is, a single voice across several mediums — song and dance, poetry and brass, drums, bright dresses, and big hair. It’s performance art; it’s a slam-poetry dance show. Ball credits “everyone on that stage” for making every show unique, especially drummer and musical director Joshua Johnson. Bangas shows mix the choreographed and planned with bursts of improvisation, pure jazz fun in the raw, lived-in moment.
Ball’s songs are meant to be enjoyed in that moment. Dylan said, “The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page.”
Bangas vocalist Angelika “Jelly” Joseph blended song and theater earlier this year with a production of “Alice Lost,” Ball’s jazz rendition of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” The show ran for about six months. Norah Jones surprised the audience one night and played with Ball. If that sounds too children’s-book for your taste, then take it from Phish guitarist and Tiny Desk judge, Trey Anastasio, who likened Ball to Sly Stone and called her live performance “a psychedelic joy rap explosion.”
Ball’s enthusiasm is contagious, and it’s a symptom of the Bangas’ affection for remembering the fun of their teenage years.
“That's when you were discovering your independence, dope music, and, you know, going to the mall for the first time without your mom,” Ball says. The way her voice settles on the word “mom” sounds like she’s nostalgic for her own coming of age. “Like, so we always want people to go back to having fun in your growth of just being a person.”
At a quieter duet set at Jazz Fest, Ball told the crowd she had been insecure about her style and self-image when she was younger. But Ball’s bright fabrics and patterns, varicolored as an Ashley Longshore portrait, enhance the band’s feel-good vibes as part of same presentation, the same musical message. She credits Frida Kahlo’s floral print style as her primary fashion inspiration. Ball always looks “dressed for paradise,” as Mexican author Carlos Fuentes wrote of Kahlo.
Much has changed in New Orleans since “before the storm” when Ball was younger. But she says one positive outcome of post-Katrina life is “underground artistry,” where artists get together for unadvertised, secret parties. “They're making their own venues pop and that's really cool.”
As she tells me this, I hear her whisper, “Thank you,” to someone who’s not me and away from the phone.
“I’m sorry, I’m…,” she says, then pauses, and somehow I knew she was grinning. “I'm literally in the store trying on clothes.” She cracks up, and I join her in the laughter. She tells me she's thrift-store shopping at a place called Buffalo Exchange, singing the last word: excha-hannge.
“It's the shiznic,” she says. “I love to thrift.”