Omari Banks... in a new avatar. Photo Courtesy: Omari Banks' Facebook Page
Omari Banks… in a new avatar. Photo Courtesy: Omari Banks’ Facebook Page

Omari Banks was the first man from Anguilla to represent West Indies at the highest level. He was picked for West Indies at 20 and appeared in 10 Tests and 5 ODIs. Post international cricket, he also played for Somerset. Having retired at only 29 in 2012, Banks turned his attention to music and is now a reggae star. Nishad Pai Vaidya caught up with the former West Indies all-rounder and spoke to him about his music career.

On a sunny day in Antigua in the summer of 2003, West Indies stunned the formidable Australians by chasing down 418 in the fourth innings of a Test — a feat that remains a record to date. While Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s centuries put West Indies on course, a 20-year-old all-rounder also had his moment in the sun with a crucial 47 not out. Omari Banks, the first Anguillan to play Tests, will always be remembered for that feat on the field of play at the highest level.

Reflecting on that victory, Banks says: “That was a good team victory and certainly it was great to be a part of it, and in some ways an instrumental part of it.  It was a situation where my preparation met my opportunity.  So much has been said about it before, but it was a truly unique situation and one that occurred so early in my playing career that with time I can appreciate it more.  We had a team of players who were playing for pride and who believed beyond the odds that we could succeed in that moment.”

Nearly 12 years down the line, Banks is almost unrecognisable. From the lad with short hair, beaming that smile, he has now transformed into a man with the looks of a rock star.  Instead of the bat he now sports the guitar. Meet Omari Banks — the reggae star.

The Anguillan quit cricket in 2012, aged a mere 29. At the time he was a physical education teacher and decided to achieve his dreams on the musical front. A little more than two years later, he already released an album called Move On, a few singles and has some exciting plans for the future.

Cricket and music — the two passions

Banks’ father Clement, popularly known as Bankie Banks, is a famous reggae musician. Thanks to his father, music came naturally to little Omari. He made waves when he performed for the first time in Italy when he was five. Looking back, he says, “Growing up with a father in music I was always around it from an early.  On my fifth birthday, I performed on stage with my dad in Milan, Italy.  My dad also started a music festival — the Moonsplash Music Festival — which is the longest running independent music festival in the Caribbean now. So I’ve had a great opportunity from a very young age to interact with international reggae artists from Third World, Buju Banton, Jah Cure, Culture, Freddie McGregor and just about every name.  So definitely my father’s artistry, his song-writing and his love of many types of music influenced me, but I was also influenced by many people around him.”

With a father immersed in music, one wonders how young Banks took to cricket. He credits it to his uncle Val: “I enjoyed both music and sports from a young age.  I played soccer and baseball as well.  My uncle Val Banks was a very good cricketer in his own right and he represented Anguilla as a cricketer, was an administrator within the Leeward Islands as well as the West Indies setup.  Before his role in administration he really spent a lot of time teaching and encouraging me with the game.  I actually lived with my uncle and my aunt for a couple years when my mother was working on her Masters and my father was in Europe.”

Omari Banks celebrates West Indies' historic victory over Australia at Antigua in 2003. This is Banks' most memorable moment at the highest level © Getty Images
Omari Banks celebrates West Indies’ historic victory over Australia at Antigua in 2003. This is Banks’ most memorable moment at the highest level © Getty Images

As years went by, Banks made strides in West Indies cricket. At the age of 16, he was in the Leeward Islands Under-19 team. Before his First-Class debut he was already playing for Leicestershire Second XI. At 18 he earned his First-Class cap and represented Leicestershire against the touring Pakistanis. Despite cricket keeping him busy, he never lost touch with music. In fact, it was also one of the sources of income for the young cricketer.

“Before I played West Indies cricket I played music.  I played at local hotels and that was how I earned my money.  All the time I was training and preparing myself for my ultimate goal of making the West Indies team and succeeding on that level.  Cricket was my focus then so it wasn’t very difficult for me to balance.  As I made the West Indies team and travelled, playing music was more relaxing and a positive distraction,” Banks says. He went on to play 10 Tests and five ODIs for West Indies, the last of which came in the year 2005.

Though Banks represented West Indies A in a few games thereafter, he could not break into the senior side. He played for Somerset for a couple of seasons: “I had certainly been to England and travelled to other places in the world before to play cricket, but the structures in place in a professional set up like the county teams I played for really gave me a good appreciation for the process of preparing to succeed both on the field and off”.

There is also a bit of a philosophical touch to his county experience, one that has held him in good stead for life. He says, “It’s a sport, but it’s a professional endeavour like most other professional endeavours.  If you are going to be a teacher you need to prepare to teach.  If you are going to be a doctor you have to prepare to practice medicine well and so on.  It really underscored the importance of preparation for consistent performance.  Not that I hadn’t prepared before but the structures stand out.  I also met a lot of wonderful players there that I played with at the first eleven, second eleven and club level where I have maintained good relationships since.”

Making it as a reggae star

Banks called it a day from cricket at the relatively young age of 29 in early 2012. Giving up on a passion is no easy task, but he knew it was the right time to bid adieu. It was a decision he had clearly thought about: “It wasn’t difficult to walk away.  It is something that I thought about, it is something that I prepared for and when the time was right I did it.  Sport is not something that you can do forever.  Beyond the short time frame that anyone can play sports a high level, based on some of my experiences and interactions in the game it was a situation where it was just the right time.  To succeed on a very high level in cricket or anything else your passion for it has to exceed just about everything else.”

Moving from one field to another was not going to be easy. Banks was then a physical education teacher in Anguilla. He says he became more active on the musical front during the last phase of his cricketing career, “During my last two years in cricket, I became more active in music, writing more of my own songs and just being more engaged in that.  At a point the music took over.  So, yes, teaching physical education is something I did and I really enjoyed working with young people, helping them to become active and healthy and encouraging them along.  I valued the work I did with them and they seemed to value how I worked with them.”

Photo Courtesy: Olaide Banks
Omari Banks’ video Unafraid was rated No. 1 in the Caribbean. Photo Courtesy: Olaide Banks

Deep down Banks knew he could succeed in music and took the plunge with faith in his heart and the support of those around him. There were times when Banks’ teaching assignments took a hit because of his musical ambitions, “My students and everyone knew that I was passionate about my music so they were all very encouraging.  I pursued my music even as I taught and at a point my music schedule and the demand for music didn’t allow me to teach anymore.  I stepped out on faith and belief in my music even before it was fully what it is now, but the music emerged based on the effort I was putting into it.”

In June 2013, Banks’ first album Move On released with 10 singles in it; apart from that he also has sung other numbers. The videos of those songs can be seen on YouTube. About the response, Banks says, “The response has been great. I started locally on Anguilla, expanded to neighbouring islands and now all across the Caribbean people know of my music and we’re having really good success in terms of radio play and music charts.”One of the videos of his songs titled Unafraid was rated the No. 1 music video in the Caribbean. In one of the charts, it remained in the top ten for 17 weeks in a row. There is also a cricketing touch to his video No Point to Prove. In one of the shots, he plays a cricketing shot with the guitar, walks by Chris Gayle‘s Triple Century Bar. He also walks into Sabina Park in Kingston and meets up with former West Indies teammates Carlton Baugh and Wavell Hinds.

In February 2015, Banks is set to release Move On Deluxe Edition. This will feature some new numbers along with some re-mastered tracks. So far Banks has already performed in the Caribbean and the United States of America. His next plan is to go to UK: “I’ve had a chance to perform all over the Caribbean, in the U.S. in New York, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington DC and several other places.  So things have really been building.  I plan to tour and perform in the UK in February and do more extensive touring during the summer months,” he says.

Banks is also aiming to take his music across the world: “I look forward to touring extensively in Europe and Africa during the summer and plans are in place to accomplish that, and getting my music heard all over the world, spreading a message of love, empowering people to think consciously and independently and having fun doing it.”

Looking from a distance Banks seems a seasoned performer irrespective of the art. Be it music or cricket, he has given his best shot with every opportunity coming his way. Banks’ first innings was that of being a cricketer. The second essay has only begun and a lot lies in store for him in the world of music. But, what if he had to pick between two scenarios — hitting the winning runs on the biggest stage or performing in front of a sell-out? “Hopefully I won’t have to pick.  We’ve got one item on that list covered and we’re working on the other one right now,” Banks concludes setting his sights on the future.

(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and anchor for the site’s YouTube Channel. His Twitter handle is @nishad_45)