Omari Banks

Moving On

130513-1642It would be easy to say that Omari Banks is now simply following in the footsteps of his father, Anguilla’s reggae star Bankie Banx, but this would only tell part of his story. Growing up in a family of musicians and music lovers might have charted his destiny early on, but cricket beckoned, and he obliged. Sport gave the former West Indies cricketer an opportunity at an altogether new challenge; one that he feels has allowed him to now approach his music with a fresh perspective.

We were able to catch up with Omari as he was putting the finishing touches on his debut album, “Move On”, and he talks about the early influence of his dad, his unique sound and his desire to perform with John Mayer.

You come from a musical house/background. What was that like?

We did. Tahirah, my sister, is an artist. She sings, writes and produces her stuff. My brother, Cuji, lives in New York. He’s into hip-hop and rap. I had a guitar before I could even play one. I had a drum set, keyboards, and bass. My brother Olaide, my manager, is a lawyer and accountant. He also plays the guitar. He did piano lessons growing up. I never did piano lessons [laughs].
My aunt Linda taught me some of my first chords on the guitar. Another aunt, Gloria, was involved in singing around Anguilla with different cultural groups. Both sides of my family, more so my dad’s side, are lovers of music and are/were involved in music.

You’re like the Anguillian Marleys, aren’t you?
[He laughs] My biggest influence as a kid would have been my father. I saw a lot of bands come in and out of the house. My bedroom was just above the band house, so I would hear them practice. Later on, my father would tour the world. I visited him a few times while he was on tour. He eventually moved back to Anguilla and started Moonsplash. Back then, it was small and not something that had a lot of financing, so bands from overseas would come here and many of them stayed right there in our house. I was about 7 or 8, at the time. I was blessed and lucky to see and get introduced to a lot of musicians.
My earliest memory of singing was when I was 5. My dad was playing in Italy and I remember on one show, I jumped on the stage, took the mic and began to sing. I competed in local talent shows and, I’m proud to say, each time I competed, I won the best male performer. I guess that’s part of my claim to fame. Music was always a part of me.

How did cricket get in the mix?
My cousins and I grew up playing sports…a lot of baseball, actually. I never played cricket, but I was good at baseball. When I was in high school, a friend suggested I go to cricket practice, so I tried it. I already had the hand-eye coordination from baseball, so I could swing and hit the ball well. So cricket grew into a passion and then an obsession.
I loved singing and performing and I was very competitive.  I always wanted to win and do well in these talent shows. I felt there was some weight of expectation as well, with my dad being a musician. Cricket became an escape. I started to like cricket more than competing in the shows. I still loved music, and I still performed in the school choir, but I didn’t consider pursuing music as a career. I remember thinking I wanted to play cricket for the rest of my life, or as long as I could do it. Cricket became a way to create my own path, to be able to do something that was completely different from my dad.

How has the transition been moving back to music?
It’s been great. The decision wasn’t hard at all. I got to the point where I felt I needed a change, and wasn’t mentally or emotionally into playing cricket any more. Growing up, my two passions were sports and music. Although I played professionally, I always played music. My first job after high school was playing gigs with my guitar at the local hotels. I used to perform at Sonesta, Malliouhana and Frangipani. It was really just a way of making money while working on becoming a professional cricketer.

Did you play while you were with the West Indies?
I would always travel with my guitar. I remember one time we were on tour in Pakistan; I brought my guitar down and played in the hotel lobby. I wouldn’t play gigs, but I always played my guitar at home during that time.

At what point did you decide to make music the new career? 
When I decided that I didn’t want to play cricket any more, I asked myself “What’s next?“
I knew there was a demand for entertainment. I decided to do gigs around the hotels again, like I used to. I got some guys together, and we did a few gigs. It was OK, but it didn’t work out. I took the time to start writing songs and develop my material. The first song I wrote was “Unafraid.”
After that I started playing gigs again, and the response was good. I got a backup vocalist, Daniella. Then I got a bass player, Troy Bartlett, who’s still with me. My dad would come to watch us perform and play every now and again, and suggested we get a drummer. So I was on guitar, we had a drummer and a bass player and it was starting to sound good. So I thought “maybe we should get a keyboard player.”
Eleven Band is now comprised of me (guitar/vocals), Desroy Findlay (drums), Garson Kelsick (keyboard) and Troy Bartlett (bass). We also have another guitarist, Michael Wilson, from St. Maarten, that plays with us from time to time.

Omari and "Eleven" Band performing at Da'Vida Restaurant
Omari and “Eleven” Band performing at Da’Vida Restaurant

How did the name “Eleven” come about?

It’s a cricket influence. It is how people in the wider world would have first been introduced to me. Eleven was also my jersey number, it’s also a term used to refer to a cricket team. If I was the captain, they’d refer to the team as “Banks’ Eleven.” Also, I played professionally for 11 years. So the number eleven strikes a chord.

Interesting. Let’s move on to “Move On,” the album. What inspired it?
My life…my experiences. It’s the product of who I am today, put together to poetry, and then to music. It’s also about my transition from cricket to music – a shifting of the gears to something different.

Do you plan to go on tour?
Definitely! We have some private events in the US, but we also have an acoustic tour planned for the region – St. Kitts-Nevis, Grenada, Jamaica.

Is your dad, Bankie Banx, on the album?
We collaborated on one track, a song called “We’ve Seen It All.” It’s one of my favourites to perform because it’s powerful and real. I think a lot of people can relate to the song. In life, there are a lot of characters, and it’s about sifting through and understanding what each relationship is all about. My dad had a lot of the same challenges and triumphs and experiences and so he can relate to the song.

Bankie is such a big personality. Do you ever feel that you’re in his shadow?
I’ve never really thought about it. I don’t think so. My dad is part of the foundation on which I stand.

Standing on the shoulders of giants?
Yes. It’s important that you acknowledge and respect that. They’re not there to keep you back, but to push you forward. It doesn’t mean you have to do everything their way or always agree with them. I understand the sacrifices that he’s made, as well as the disappointments and misfortunes that he’s had in his life. These are lessons for me to learn and to help me grow. Now that I’ve been able to chart my own path in a different field, without my dad, it gives me self-assurance and confidence to do what I’m doing now.

How would you describe your sound?
It’s me. Even my dad talks about it. It was never my aim to sing like any other artiste. I never grew up trying to sing like my dad, for example. I think I’ve created my own sound, and I think it’s important to be able to distinguish me from someone else.

Ever get compared to any particular artiste?
A lot of people have said that I sound like Stevie Wonder [laughs]. No lie.

I wouldn’t have guessed him at all!
Some people have mentioned John Legend, even. What people do say is that my voice and the way I sing is very clear, and they can understand what I’m saying. That is even more important for me than sounding like someone else, because uniqueness is your currency.

Any other genre of music interests you?
I’m interested in all genres! I don’t label myself as a reggae singer. My earliest influences were soulful. I grew up singing Billy Ocean, Michael Bolton, Vanessa Williams, a lot of love songs when I was growing up. I don’t write a song and earmark it to be a Reggae song. I usually start writing with the acoustic guitar. After it’s written, the vibe of the song, how I feel about it, will determine what it’s becomes.

Would you label Omari as a particular genre of artist?
Never! My music is about speaking truth based on my experiences. I make music just to try to touch lives and have an impact on people and to create emotion. The upcoming album will be mostly Lovers Rock, with a Reggae feel. There’s also a ballad I wrote for my daughter, a funky R&B track, and a few others that are a mixture of different styles.

Best musical experience so far?
That would be the chance to work in the studio with musicians who’ve been tried and tested. I’ve been able to work with people like Sly Dunbar (half of the musician/producer duo Sly & Robbie); Junior Jazz (Inner Circle’s former lead singer), who is like an uncle to me.

What would be your ultimate musical experience/fantasy?
One of the guys that I like as an artist is John Mayer. Coincidentally, he was at Moon Splash a few years ago. I think he’s a great songwriter. I like his vibe – he plays guitar, he sings. He’d be someone I’d love to collaborate with and even perform with on stage.

Do you see yourself approaching music in the same way?
Definitely! He’s a musician first and I like that. He has an understanding of the whole process. I was involved in producing and arranging on my new album. Music is about expression and the best way for me to accomplish that, rather than doing something that is just commercial, is for me to be hands-on.

What’s next?
The album launches in June, which I know people will love. Aside from that, it’s just about moving forward. That’s what this entire movement is about…moving on.

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