Full Moon / Big Splash
Anguilla's Moonsplash Festival owns the night
Written and photographed by Flash Parker
Originally for Get Lost Magazine
Carrie Hutchinson, Acting Editor
I woke up on the beach with a fat-clawed crab clipped to my lip. I sat up, detached the pincher from my pucker, and coughed a mouthful of sand into the little skiff I was sleeping beside. My beachy keen surroundings were familiar, if not altogether recognizable right away. I still had my camera slung around my neck, and I was wearing the same clothes I had on the night before – an unbuttoned gingham shirt, khaki shorts, and, luckily, my ultrafino montecristi, my precious defense against the sun's dark arts. My sandals were nowhere in sight, likely lost at sea with my pride. Mystery clouded my mind.
From the calm chromatic water, a tall, sinewy man appeared. Long, heavy dreadlocks flecked with brown and gray swung under a leather cowboy hat, while his muscles rippled as he fought the friction of the sand. He walked toward me, offered his hand, and pulled me to my feet. “Looks like you had a good time at Moonsplash,” he said, pulling down his shades to wink at me. “Did you put anything good on that camera?” Moonsplash. My camera. Of course! The clues I needed to unlock the mystery. Suddenly I remembered where I was (on Anguilla's Rendezvous Bay), and who this was (Bankie Banx, Anguilla's legendary folk son). I scanned backwards through the images on my camera; the final photo was taken sometime after 5am right here on the beach, with the full moon illuminating the sand and St Maarten across the bay, a few dozen folk dancing on the sand to whatever act was still on stage. The image was as fine a representation of the Moonsplash festival as there ever was, and slowly my memories were becoming mine again. Bankie was gone in a flash, tucked back into his wondrously ramshackle Dune Preserve, the beach bar-slash-music club that has played permanent host to his festival since 1995. I scrolled further back through time, through the first impressions, through the acts, through the VIP treatment, all the way back to my first few moments on Anguilla, when I dug my toes into the sand, ordered a frozen mojito from the beach bar, and soaked up the sun. It was less than 24-hours prior that I checked into my plush seaside digs at the CuisinArt Golf Resort to begin my tour of Anguilla's culinary landscape courtesy of executive chef Jasper Schneider. I visited Anguilla in order to become a gastronomic swashbuckler, but in less than a day I had become a certified Reggaephile. The Caribbean's best music festival has that sort of transformative power. If I didn't have the photos, I'm not sure I would believe that any of this happened.
It was the prospect of relaxation and not transformation that brought me to Anguilla, but as I flipped through my photos I realized that my fundamental concept of island escapism had changed overnight. The visual evidence spoke to the sort of essential cultural experience I'd expect to have someplace else, not on a tiny island largely known for pretty beaches, sweet rock lobster, and highfalutin on the high sea. Memory lane delivered me to a set from Sheriff Bob Saidenberg, the New Wave Bluegrass twanger whom co-founded Moonsplash with Bankie back in 1991. Sheriff Bob's countrified sensibilities – a cagey blend of Pete Seger and Jim Cuddy - may seem out of place at a Reggae festival, but on Anguilla eclectic lineups have become something of a Moonsplash hallmark: Jimmy Buffet played the Dune Preserve a few years back, while John Mayer took the stage with Bankie in 2011. Yet there's no denying that the Reggae vibe rules the roost; I caught Gershwin Lake and the Parables whipping the crowd into a frenzy, and spent a little time on the main stage with Jamaica's Chronixx as he played to every raised set of hands on the island through a raucous rendition of “Here Comes Trouble.” I took about a hundred photos of Omari Banks, progeny of Bankie, the West Indies cricket star-cum-Caribbean sonic barometer. Like his father, Omari is built of regal bearing, and fully commands the space between himself and his audience. Under the watchful gaze of the great wooden lionfish and a facsimile of king Poseidon – local artwork has plenty of space to shine at Moonsplash - Omari opened with an acoustic rendition of “Jehova's Witness” from his Move On album. Twenty minutes later Bankie was on stage backing his son, and Anguilla was on fire.
I flipped through an embarrassing plethora of selfies, shot from the stage, the crowd, and the elevated VIP deck (how I was granted access remains a mystery). Up on the deck I bumped into an overjoyed Omari, and I mined him for a bit of Moonsplash gold. “I have the honor of saying I was here from the beginning,” Omari said of the festival. “I first took the stage with my dad when I was five years old, and ever since, Moonsplash has given me the opportunity to perform and share my music.” Omari's humble nature is striking, considering most of the locals think of him as their favorite artist, while the foreign folk have come from half a world away to hear him play. Omari and Bankie are the kings of Anguilla's music scene, and the stage, made from salvaged ship parts cast onto the beach by one hurricane or the other, is their throne. Yet I couldn't help looking at those last late night images from the beach, when Dune Preserve was at my back and the music was all around me and the island seemed like the most remarkable place on earth. Under the full moon, Moonsplash's ethereal nature is unrelentingly alluring.
With the sun high in the sky on my brand new day, I pushed memory from my mind and set out to explore Anguilla. I visited CuisinArt's Tokyo Bay and stuffed some king crab robota, rock shrip tempura and a bottle of red wine into a dry bag next to my camera, then made haste for Sandy Ground. I tucked into a Sea Pro kayak courtesy of Captain Wayne, and set off to explore shipwrecks and the rugged coast, but even on the open water I bumped into Moonsplashers; a snorkeler spent every spare breath talking about the time he saw Bankie climb the scaffolding 50 feet above the stage so he could see everyone in attendance, while a pair of passing paddleboarders waxed lyrical over the aural hijinks displayed during Chronixx's set. I'm sure I even heard a starfish singing a Sheriff Bob song, but I digress. I went lobster tasting on secluded Sandy Cay, golfing on the CuisinArt greens, and cruising between food trucks in The Valley, and never once escaped talk of Moonsplash. Visitors were jealous that I'd bumped into Bankie, while the fella in charge of my saltfish patty at Papa Lash's Food Truck hummed Omari's “Let It Go” while he worked the grill. Moonsplash is connected to the cultural core of Anguilla, and woven into the national identity so tightly that its nearly impossible to separate one from the other.
I spent the rest of my Sunday afternoon at the Moonsplash Beach Party on Rendezvous Bay, the annual wind-down that features low-key sets from some of the festival's top acts. This is a family-friendly event on the Caribbean's most family-friendly island, and brought out mom and dad and the 2.5 kids to chill with the rest of the festival crowd, which contributed to the overall conviviality of the event. I whipped back and forth between the CuisinArt Beach Bar and the Dune Preserve with arms wrapped around frosty cocktails and rum & raisin ice cream sandwiches, poked around the lobster, prawns, and ribs on the oil drum grills, and asked Omari to teach me the first few chords to “Let It Go,” for the next time I'm quizzed on my Moonsplash knowledge. I even managed to capture a few moments on my camera, because as we all know, if there's no picture, it didn't happen.
Anguilla has a small airport of its own, but most visitors arrive via ferry from Saint Maarten (roughly 1 hour by boat); Saint Maarten has connections to many major airports along the eastern US seaboard. Qantas has daily flights to Miami via Los Angeles. www.qantas.com
If Moonsplash is Anguilla's heart and soul, then the island's mind and stomach belong to the CuisinArt Golf Resort and its five fantastic restaurants, each run by a devoted foodsmith under the tutelage of executive chef Jasper Schneider, a man who knows all of Anguilla's nascent culinary secrets. CuisinArt is the only Caribbean resort with its own hydroponic farm. www.cuisinartresort.com
Bankie Banx and Dune Preserve present Moonsplash annually during the full moon in late February or early March. For program information: www.moonsplashmusicfestival.com
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Omari Banks was the first player from Anguilla to play test cricket for the West Indies when he took the pitch in 2003
Omari Banks took the stage with his father for the first time at Club Zimba in Milan, Italy, when he was 5 years old
CuisinArt completely surrounds the Dune Preserve; the music can be heard from many of the resort's seaside suites
Dune Preserve was destroyed by hurricanes in 1996 and 1999, and rebuilt by Bankie from driftwood, sailboats, and fishing skiffs
Bankie is working with the Anguilla National Trust to restore the Rendezvous Bay sand dunes to their pre-hurricane size