The stairs of the National Theater —the interior ones, those that lead to offices, dressing rooms, bathrooms, and go down right next to the Avellaneda Hall— are the classic picture of loneliness. They are sad, lacking in personality and, sometimes, too quiet. But it is exactly what I need now, at two in the afternoon on a Tuesday in January: silence. Inside the room, everything is a bit chaotic: people come and go, sound technicians make sure everything is in place while eight men try to make music from trumpets, trombones, a tuba, and a saxophone.
Es la prueba de sonido de The Soul Rebels, la brass band que veremos en escena esta misma noche, y yo, entre tanto, converso con Tarriona “Tank” Ball, frontwoman de Tank and the Bangas, otra de las alineaciones que nos trae el Getting Funky in Havana, el primer festival de funk cubano y de Nueva Orleans en la Isla, organizado por Cuba Educational Travel, Trombone Shorty Foundation y el Festival Internacional Jazz Plaza. La imagen de nosotras, sentadas en aquellas escaleras, hablando de lo que significa o no amar una ciudad como La Habana, del jazz y las maneras que tiene para que en él confluyan muchos sonidos, ritmos y géneros, me trae a la cabeza aquella foto de Bob Dylan con Patti Smith (también en unas escaleras) en algún lugar de Greenwich Village, en 1975 —no sé por qué, quizás porque estoy pensando mucho en Bob Dylan por estos días.
Earlier, Marcus Hubbard, trumpeter of The Soul Rebels, had briefly described what was to come: “The sound of New Orleans comes from the taste of different music; it emerges from Africa, the Caribbean, America, but in the form of a big jam session. We come from a city where the most famous dish is gumbo, which is made in large pots and where several meals are mixed. For us, music is like gumbo and the more flavor it has, the better. ” Now, I want Tank to come back to that idea; but, above all, I want her to decipher the sound of the band that conquered everyone in the Tiny Desk contest of the National Public Radio .
And while many talk about the symbiosis among rock, funk, storytelling, spoken word, and "soulful Disney" of the Bangas; Tank prefers to avoid any label and talks about a "spiritual connection." “We mix sounds, but it is not on purpose. They flow, they come along. Because on stage, it is important to sound good, but, above all, it is important to feel good. We want to connect with people and see what happens, making it fun is essential. We do an honest and truly dynamic show”.
Until that moment, when Tank says "dynamic," "funny," "spiritual," "connection," I am not aware of the real meaning of those words. Later, the chips would fall into place.
In April 2019, as Billboard magazine included him among its recommendations and the world fell at the foot of the “new sensation” of Cuban music, Erik Alejandro Iglesias landed in New Orleans to celebrate his birthday. The famous Tipitina´s club, a refuge for bands like Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Nelville Brothers, among others, hosted him with a concert that included the Soul Rebels, members of Tank and the Bangas and Trombone Shorty among the line-up. From that exchange, from the jam sessions and visits to the neighborhoods of the city of Louis Armstrong, the idea of bringing all the soul and funk from New Orleans to Cuba was born.
Eight months later, Cimafunk walks the streets of Old Havana. Every time he stops, he takes pictures with fans who intercept him amidst the crowd following the musicians of the Second Line Conga, who parade from the Plaza del Cristo to a park in San Isidro, singing funeral hymns, typical of the tradition and celebrations in the city of birth of rhythm and blues. It starts with When the Saints Go Marching in, that American gospel song that accompanies the processions, then Little Liza Jane is heard, a theme that has become a jazz staple and that Nina Simone sang for many years.
In the crowd, I managed to spot Julian Gosin (trumpet) of the Soul Rebels, the boys of Trombone Shorty and Albert Allenback (sax and flute) of Tank and the Bangas, who raised their instruments to the sky, while the songs play. Suddenly some of the scenes of Treme —the TV show created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer— made sense. All the folklore of the Mardi Gras tribes rests with the Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, of the Golden Eagles —who at the beginning marks the route of the parade with his suit of patches, feathers, sequins and beads—, and in another chief, he is dressed in yellow, with a small sword made of silver and shiny pearls.
My friend Gladys walks with me. She has traveled 365 kilometers to see Tank and The Bangas and is probably the only Cuban on the Island who knows all their songs, read all their interviews, watched all the concerts on YouTube, and the only one able to tell every member of the band apart.
"Look, Joshua Johnson," she shouts and points to the drummer and musical director of the band, as he walks by our side right at that moment. I look at her; I've been there, at that level of "fanaticism." I smile.
Then Gladys vanishes for a moment, she gets lost in the crowd that dances, watches, walks by. I see her hugging Tank in a corner. Tank screams. Gladys gets excited. They cry. They hug again. Gladys tells her something like Rollercoasters "will always be in her heart", in a true and worthy act of the typical fan that shakes Tank on her feet, because, of course, who would have told her that someone in this country would know the music of a band that has just been nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best New Artist. Rollercoasters, on the other hand, is a song from the album Think Tank, the first one recorded by the band, and talks about that feeling of falling, of jumping into the abyss over and over again, but also of the courage that is needed to return to the ring, to ride the rollercoaster, to fall in love, without knowing. Obviously, I discovered this later.
Now people march with the band. In the end, the conga merges with the second line. We cannot longer tell where one ends and the other begins.
There is no pretty way to say it: if you are reading this text and you were not at the Tank and the Bangas concert on January 15 at the Cuban Art Factory you will not understand what comes next. First, because you cannot understand what you haven’t lived, at least in this case. Second, because there is no possible way to explain it. Even so, here I go:
On stage, Tank and the Bangas is a compact mass of energy. The show opens with the single Spaceships, which makes us look at the movements of Anjelika Jelly Joseph, Kayla Buggage and Tank herself from the far left, it makes us watch the instrumentalists from time to time—each one has their own thing, especially Albert Allenback, who plays the saxophone and the flute, taking the intensity to its highest level, inevitably stealing the attention of those who follow the frontwoman of the ensemble. But the spectacle mutates all the time. It is not static.
Tank, at times, says it's amazing to be here tonight. She says so, and she doesn't know what it means for us to be here —the brotherhood of the connoisseurs, of those who are in that place on a Wednesday at the right time. The stage of Nave 4 of F.A.C. is one of those places that creates bonds, it goes beyond intimate. Even so, she takes us to the limit, she asks us to raise our hands, to sing with her songs that many of us have never heard before. She does it with Quick , what is going on? She does it with Boxes and Squares, with Nice Things , with Smoke.Netflix.Chill, seriously, what is going on?
Then, Tank invites La Reina y la Real to come on stage; the Soul Rebels do it too. Suddenly we are on the floor, crouching, the band included, while something chill plays. In minutes we are jumping with an adrenaline level that can’t even keep us from leaking (true story: I did fact-checking and it happened to many of us). The connection is total. After this, the closing: Tank and the Bangas performs Nirvana, Tank and the Bangas sings Smells Like Teen Spirit. And, here we are now: paralyzed, not having a clue of what to do next.
There is a picture that describes the trance state this concert send us in: people with their hands on their heads, looking at each other, looking for complicity while asking: is this the best concert of our lives?
I came to La Tropical because I was told that Tank and the Bangas would play here. I want to see the faces of those who have no idea of what they are about to face once the show is over. I want to know if they are, or will be, worthy of being among the "initiates." And I want, as a good addict, to repeat.
The show starts with the boys from Trombone Shorty Foundation (visibly exhausted after such intense days), followed by The Soul Rebels, who do some of the songs on their most recent album, Poetry in Motion, which features a powerful line-up of artists that includes people like “old acquaintance” Tarriona Tank Ball, Big Freedia, PJ Morton, Robert Glasper, and Branford Marsalis. The band — which has collaborated live with Metallica, Marilyn Manson, Katy Perry, among others— mixes R&B, funk, jazz and hip hop in a presentation loaded with modern sounds, where each instrument integrates perfectly and, from time to time, Marcus Hubbard and Julian Gosin leave the trumpet to lead, with the accompaniment of rap. The brass band format allows them to be free on the stage, to play and dance at the same time. The flow is contagious, especially when the amazingly good Greatness plays.
The end of Getting Funky in Havana approaches when Tank and the Bangas take the stage of La Tropical. The set list is almost identical to the one performed in F.A.C., only shorter. The band sounds tremendously good, but it's not the same. How could it be? I think that there in F.A.C. we were the precise people and that here the public is more heterogeneous, space is larger, the energies flow in several directions, and that, above all, people came to “enjoy” with Cimafunk.
The most recent revelation of Cuban music, does his thing after midnight: Relajao, Cocinarte, Basta, are some of the hits that sound once again in this place. In the middle of therapy, I think that Cimafunk owes us a new song for a while, and a new album. One that blows our minds again. It seems that he listens to me and announces La papa, his most recent single, which makes me think that maybe he is going in the right direction. Before the classic Me voy, The Soul Rebels and Tank and the Bangas accompany him in a song "that still has no name" but that we now know as Caliente.
Then I go back to my conversation with Tank days ago on the interior stairs of the National Theater where she told me how she met Cimafunk and what she thought of his music. “We have a song together, you know. The name is something related to fire, something ‘calen-te’, like him. We have never played it live and this is the first time we do it. It's scary and exciting”, Tank says. I feel that time is running out and I ask her if she ever saw that Grammy nomination coming.
"We're going to win," she says.
I don't know why, but for some reason, I believe her.