New Orleans' Tank and The Bangas and Jupiter & Okwess presented dense, rewarding music Friday at Jazz Fest.

tank and the bangas photo
Tank and the Bangas, by Gus Bennett

Friday at Jazz Fest was a lesson in context. I went into the day excited to see Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, but after an afternoon that included Fiend, 3D Na’Tee, Tank and The Bangas, and Jupiter & Okwess from the Congo, a dude with carefully crafted country(ish) songs didn’t fit the day’s flavor profile. The musical and lyrical clarity in his songs were also at odds with the sometimes gnarly music I got from Tank and Jupiter. 

Tank and The Bangas could stand to occasionally think the kind of direct thought that Isbell or Nirvana—whose “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the band covered—does, but nobody embodies our culture’s cacophonous interplay of voices inside and outside your head like Tank and The Bangas. Almost every musical idea has a related second and third idea that they find a way to explore, seemingly to dead ends until they emerge almost magically at the hook, which slams in harder because it comes as a surprise. Tarionna “Tank” Ball employs a host of voices including a girlish coo that teeters on the edge of cutesy, but together they suggest the mixed emotions and conflicting impulses that feel like defining characteristics of a 21st century, first world existence. 

The band’s hyper-specificity marks them as right on time. Their sound doesn’t have to come from New Orleans, but their look and sound belong solely to them. No one else is occupying the same space. The visual markers onstage identify it with radical fashion, the social media-conscious “#bangaville” baseball cap, and the nod to Jean-Michel Basquiat in the band T the drummer rocked. The markers signal a university-educated sensibility, but one also filtered through individual idiosyncrasies to produce an art funk that is comfortable speaking plainly from the heart or footnoting every digressive sub-clause in a ball of yarn of a thought. 

It was good to see Tank and The Bangas on the Acura Stage, where the runway out toward the crowd allowed Tank to be a rock star in one moment, mock the diva-ness of being there the next, then revel in the punk feeling that they crashed a stage that featured Lionel Richie the day before. One of Ball’s talents is her ability to signal each attitude, and because fans can connect to her even as she changes perspective mid-song, the band has a clear future.

I wish Tank and The Bangas would have seen Jupiter & Okwess on the Congo Square Stage to add another layer of complexity to their sound. A friend who knows music from the Congo recognized their sound’s deep Congolese roots. I heard the rich, cross-cultural rock in Jupiter & Okwess that I heard in my favorite Fishbone songs, but then they blew past Fishbone into a musical world I barely knew. The luchadore on drums charged the beat, giving the band’s two-guitar sound the rush of rock, but as my friend who knows points out, it’s not rock. This quick introduction to “tradi-modern” Congolese music was was exhilarating, and the reason world music is always a priority at Jazz Fest. It’s the one arena where the thrill of discovery still exists, not just in the form of a new (to you) band but a new (to you) music. (Jupiter & Okwess play again Saturday at 1:20 p.m. on the Jazz & Heritage Stage and at 3:20 p.m. in the Cultural Exchange Pavilion.)

Other Notes:

- Hearing Maurice Mo Betta Brown play with Terrace Martin Thursday and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra Friday made me sad that he doesn’t live in New Orleans anymore. He brought fire each time I heard him this week, and I’ve never heard him kill time on his horn. (Brown and his band, Soul'd U Out will play with Talib Kweli and DJ Scratch tonight at Three Keys in the Ace Hotel.)

- Rapper Fiend honored his second identity as International Jones by wearing a crisp white dress shirt and bow tie matched with Nike basketball shorts and kicks. Before him at the New Orleans Hip-Hop Experience at Congo Square Stage, 3D Na’Tee carefully and seamlessly dropped the less PG words out of songs. Fiend evidently didn’t get the memo when he launched into “Baddest M.F. Alive” and didn’t drop out any words. As a shout-out to his days as a No Limit Soldier—though he was too good-natured to think of in combat terms—Fiend finished with a verse and chorus of Master P’s “Make ‘em Say UGH.”