King of the Dune
After a chance encounter with a guitar-playing house guest, Bankie built a guitar. The rest is history. Bankie Banx talks about his mother, his happiest moments, and the 45-year career that’s still growing.
Between a world-class golf course and a world-famous resorts it’s the world’s best beach bar: the Dune Preserve. Perched on Rendezvous Bay, the Dune is a meandering tree-house fit for a pirate, complete with more than a touch of Robinson Crusoe. Just in case it needed a little more atmosphere, they’ve thrown in a monkey. You wouldn’t be surprised to see Jack Sparrow wander by – appropriate, since reigning over the Dune is Bankie Banx, whose mother called him her “pirate son”.
Most musicians would be happy with a ten-year career. They would consider twenty a great success. Forty-five is almost unheard of. When asked what he puts his success down to, Bankie is low key. “I guess I just didn’t stop,” he says and shrugs. Bankie is still a long way from stopping. But how did he start?
Bunkie’s dad died when he was about seven, leaving histomata provide for the family. She turned their home into a boarding house, taking in guests from banks, the Peace Corps and the government. Once, a guest had a guitar, which he let the kids play. As the youngest, Bankie didn’t get much time on it, so he decided to try making his own. He took a cement bag and a piece of cardboard and drew out the guitar’s shape. Using the technical drawing and woodwork tools at the High School near his house, hemaden his own instrument. “We didn’t make the guitar in any technical way. We just measured the other guitar,” says Bankie, “and it played.”
Hooked, Bankie and his friends went on to make more guitars. “By then, we were finishing them real nicely. We’d go down to Arthur Richardson’s furniture store and spray paint them. We became little guitar makers. I was twelve years old, then.”
When Radio Anguilla came into being in 1969, Bankie’s sister Linda was one of their first DJs. “An English DJ had a twelve-string guitar. He came by the house and saw the guitars we were making. When he finally left Anguilla, he took one of my guitars, giving me his twelve-string. It was a great moment – the first time I owned a real guitar. That’s when I became a guitarist.”
Bankie’s mother shaped his early life. According to him, she raised her kids “like communists” to work and help pay their loans. “She was a brilliant woman in many ways,” he says. Though he never really got to know his father, he remembers his dad trying to help him with the math he struggled with. “It wasn’t working, and my mom took me by the hand and said, ‘They’re not all going to be the same. This one might just be the artistic one.’ Then, she gave me crayons and a piece of paper and said, ‘Just go on and do that.’”
His mother also insisted on education for all her children. But while his brothers and sisters headed off to academic pursuits, music called Bankie. A band called Jesse and the Fantastics practiced across the street, and Sprocka (Corinne Richardson) was a member. Lunsford, Sprocka’s brother and rhythm guitarist, was impressed by Bankie’s playing and suggested that he come by the band house. “They gave me that bass guitar,” Bankie laughs. I never gave it back.”
So he became a band member, chaperoned to gigs by his older brother, Val. He completed his schoolwork when he got home: “That was the law.”
It was an interesting time to be in a band. The British ships were visiting, and the boys on board were audiences and sometimes new group members. A community centre by Webster Park was one of the band’s rehearsal venues. At that time, there was no electricity in Anguilla. “We would throw diesel in the generator, start it up and do our rehearsal,” Bankie says.
Later, Bankie took up a teaching gig at the Island Harbour School, a time of great creativity for him. Always unorthodox, he was one of the first teachers to walk into a classroom in jeans and sneakers. It was the first school on the island to be built on the beach, and that suited him; he held half of his classes outside under the palm trees. Inspired by the students – “I got more from those kids than they ever got from me”–Bankie wrote some of his biggest songs in the classroom: Prince of Darkness, the Dreamer, and Duty Calls.
He had formed his first band in 1967, and in 1977, Prince of Darkness became his first number-one hit. Several chart-topping songs followed. With the 1978 release of his first album Roots and Herbs, recorded with his band of the same name, Bankie pioneered reggae music in the Eastern Caribbean. They recorded and toured throughout the Caribbean, blending genres and leaving an indelible mark on the cultural consciousness of the region. Bunkie’s achievement can be stated simply: from one of the smallest and least populous islands in the English-speaking Caribbean came one of the most potent and influential forces in reggae music. The band eventually broke up in 1987.
Bankie isn’t easy to box into a style or genre. He has been described as a cross between Bob Marley and Bob Dylan, his music a fusion of reggae, folk, R&B and jazz. His early influences came from the sounds he heard on the only radio station around, which played gospel music. International influences filtered in as Angelina’s returned from Santo Domingo or Curacao with me dengue and country and western music. He also listened to The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Bob Dylan and Motown.
Bankie spent the late 1980s in New York, where Bankie Banx and the New York Connection were regulars on the East-Coast music scene. Each January, he returned to Anguilla to play gigs with his music contacts from New York.
Malliouhana was in its heyday back then, and he was invited to perform there. When he also attracted a following from the villas and other hotels, he realised he was on the threshold of something big. So began Moon splash in 1991, a festival on the beach. The Dune Preserve came into being when Bankie built a cabin in the back and a stage out front, so the audience could be on the beach or in the water. Candles in paper bags lit a path from the Anguilla Great House Hotel down the beach to the Dune.“It was like heaven,” he recalls.
In 1994, Bankie made Anguilla his home once again as he developed both the Dune and Moon splash. Now one of the premier music festivals in the region, Moon splash showcases emerging talent alongside vintage acts, and the Dune Preserve is ranked the top beach bars in the world. Its signature drink is the “Dune Shine”, a ginger-based rum punch. It came about by accident,” Bankie smiles. “When I first started, I was selling vegetarian food and no alcohol – the rasta man thing. No one was buying it. The ginger beer went bad, so we took the ginger and mixed it with some strong rum and some other things. That became Dune Shine.”
I’ve been all over the world, but the best things that ever happened to me happened right here in Anguilla.
When Bankie remembers his happiest career moments, a few shine brightest. He was the first Eastern Caribbean act to perform at Reggae Sun splash in 1982 at the Bob Marley Center in Montego Bay. Later, he performed for Jimmy Buffet in front of a crowd of 60,000.
Sweetest of all was meeting Bob. Cruising around the islands on his boat, Water Pearl, Bob Dylan had anchored at Long Bay, and his crew had come ashore and found Bankie’s CD. When he heard Prince of Darkness, Bob sent the crew ashore again to bring him the man behind the song. The captain tracked Bankie down and invited him aboard. Bankie remembers, “It was a huge, elegantly simple but luxurious boat. He was there with some guys from the islands, having fish and dumplings and green bananas for lunch.” The two hit it off, and Bankie invited Bob to come to his housetop jam.
At the house, Dylan started playing Bankie’s keyboard, which was rigged up to a recording device. As Bankie remembers,” After a while, Bob says, ‘Hey, Bankie, this thing sounds pretty good. Can you record that?’ and I said, ‘Bob, I already did.’ In a mellow voice, he replies, ‘Really?’I played it back for him, and he asked me to put a reggae baseline on it.” Bob asked two female vocalists to join them: Priscilla Gumbs (who famously asked “Bob who?”) and Amelia Vanterpool. When the girls arrived, they sang three-part harmonies together. When they’d finished, Dylan asked about the cost of production. Bankie recalls, “I said, ‘Bob, man, I’m cool.’ He said, ‘You know what, Bankie, you can have my boat to do that tour you wanted to do.’ He gave me his yacht for six weeks.”
Years later, when Dylan put on a concert in New York, they reconnected. Dylan told him, “You know, Bankie, I play two reggae songs in my concerts sometimes–The Harder They Come by Jimmy Cliff and Prince of Darknessby you.”Suddenly quiet, Bankie remembers, “That was a big thing for me.”
Bankie has many children, “I spread it [his wild oats] out,” he laughs. Some have followed him into music, most famously Omari, of whom he says, “I walked away; I wasn’t around for ten years. He was raised by his Uncle Val, basically. I came home when he was fifteen and playing cricket, I accepted it. I really couldn’t believe it when he told me about all the politics [in cricket]. He learned a lot about life and what it means to be a black man. I went through that. Before he left Anguilla [to play in England], he came and saw me, but I didn’t have time. I wrote him a letter and said, ‘You take that wherever you go and just read that. ‘The letter is about what I know about life. Once you get up there in the spotlight in any way, they will try to drag you down to their level. When he came back from England, and I could see that he wasn’t enjoying it anymore.”Father and son recorded a track called We’ve Seen it Allon Omari’s album, Move On.“A lot of that song comes from my letter,” Bankie muses.
What does the future hold for the man who has never stopped? He hasn’t thought about retiring. This year, Bankie took on a different project: constructing a villa close to the Dune, building it the old Anguilla way. “It’s Biblical in style,” he explains, “with huge, rough-hewn stones.” Next year, he’ll go on tour. He’s also thought about taking some time to do some musical producing.
When Bankie considers Anguilla’s young people, many are lost. “These kids are growing up alone,” he observes,“ raised by TV. There’s nobody home to tell them anything. When these kids come home from school, there’s no community centre, no social place, there’s nothing. These kids don’t really want to hurt anybody. Most of them are just bored. The gun becomes a toy.”
In response, he created a charity called The Stingrays to mentor young people and give them a musical outlet. Today, several Stingray graduates work in music. The charity is still alive, but Bankie feels it needs more new eyes and hands. As Bankie puts it, “It’s hard to find people who really understand.”
Bankie sums up his views on Anguilla’s political scene: “I’m not a politician; I’m an activist. People will never vote for me – I’m too real. You have to tell people you’re the greatest. I’m not the greatest. I can give you my opinion, but I’m going to live my life. I get up every morning and do what I want to do.”
…[I’m] the guy who always did what he felt was right and didn’t care what anybody thought.
As he sits on his beach, he feels content. “I’ve been all over the world, but the best things that ever happened to me happened right here on Anguilla.”He’s making the music that he loves and jamming with friends each year at Moonsplash. He wants to pass the Dune on to his kids, preserving his legacy for future generations.
Asked what he would like to see on his tombstone, he replies,” I don’t want a ceremony. I want to disappear. My tombstone could read, ‘Bankie is the guy who always did what he felt was right and didn’t care what anybody thought about him.’”