Since the New Orleans band Tank and the Bangas beat out more than 6,000 other acts to be named winners of NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in February, the joyful ensemble’s career has taken a dramatic upturn.
Last time through Philadelphia, the group fronted by Tarriona “Tank” Ball played a club show to fewer than two dozen people. On Tuesday night, the band headlined a sold-out show before a raucous crowd of 650 fans who shouted out every word of the slam poet-turned-bandleader’s songs.
But on Wednesday morning, Ball and her Crescent City crew were back in cozier confines. The band was the star attraction at Girls Rock Philly summer camp at El Centro de Estudiantes in Kensington, where they played a lunchtime concert and took questions from a full house of 50 campers.
For starters, Ball made it clear that hobnobbing with big-name music stars didn’t rate any higher than hanging with the teenage attendees of GRP camp, which has moved to El Centro this year after a full decade in South Philly.
“Chilling with Chance the Rapper or getting shout-outs from Anderson .Paak is nice,” said the 27-year-old singer and storyteller. “But the most important thing is being right here in this room right now. There’s nobody else here but you. Nobody else but us.”
Girls Rock Philly, part of an alliance of similar organizations in the United States and around the world that held its annual gathering here in March, regularly brings in local musicians to perform and lead workshops. Campers form bands and write and record songs in the weeklong camp, which culminates in a concert at Union Transfer on Saturday afternoon and recording sessions at Miner Street studio in Fishtown on Sunday. Electronic artist Little Strike played Tuesday, and touring pop-punk duo Diet Cig used GRP band Wolf Pack as backup singers on their feminist anthem “Tummy Ache.”
And with Tank and the Bangas, GRP landed one of the leading buzz bands of 2017, whose self-empowering message meshed perfectly with the camp’s mission.
“To have an artist of that caliber with that much hype in this moment to take the time is really valuable,” said Samantha Rise, the camp’s program director.
Ball and band roused the second-floor classroom/performance space with an inventive cover of OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” that had campers up and out of their seats. She advised her audience: “Let your dreams be fuel for wherever you want to go.”
Grace Sanger-Johnson, 16, of Haddonfield, was thrilled to find that the band was coming to town, especially after she tried to buy World Cafe Live tickets but got shut out.
The seven-year veteran of the camp plays bass and drums and sings but is strictly a guitarist in her 2017 band, Basil Thing. She says the camp has “a special atmosphere. You can genuinely be yourself and also create music.” She loves Tank and the Bangas, she says, because their soul-jazz-rap-spoken word-rock-New Orleans bounce sound is unique: “They create the music that they want to create.”
“Everywhere we go, if there’s a bunch of teenagers open to the possibility of meeting someone or having an experience that could change their life — we down for that,” Ball said before the show. “And I know one thing for a fact: When somebody introduces something in your life that just stirs something inside of you, you are on the path to greatness and positivity. … I’m all about changing someone’s life.”
Along with this week’s session for 13- to 19-year-olds, there’s a Girls Rock Philly camp for 8- to 12-year-olds starting July 24. The nonprofit is run on a pay-what-you-wish basis, with attendees typically paying from $50 to $400.
“No one is turned away” because of cost, says Andrea Jacome, GRP’s community organizing director. The organizers were delighted to welcome Ball, she said, because “she’s such an amazing performer, and she has such intentional thought with her work. We believe that music is a force that brings people together and offers opportunity for community-building, and that it’s an opportunity to transform ourselves and transform our communities. She’s really a great model for the spirit we try to bring.”
On Tuesday, Bangas member Albert Allenbeck, who played flute and a saxophone solo on demand when campers wondered why he had brought his horn if he wasn’t going to play it, said the group felt a responsibility to “share with young people. It’s like a duty to give back stuff that can’t be sold, that can only be shared and told.”
At the close of the show, Bowie Leach, 13, of South Philadelphia, presented Ball and fellow vocalist Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph with a pencil drawing of the pair she had done during the performance. Her verdict: “They were great!”
When asked for her impressions of Philadelphia, the Crescent City native compared it to her hometown, offering campers encouragement while telling them to “stay true to the city that birthed you.”
“It reminds me a lot of New Orleans,” Ball said. “Concrete roses, just everywhere. It’s the type of place that can either make who you are or break who you are. It’s your roots, and your roots are important to you, but branch out. Home is not where the start is. Home is where the heart is.”