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Melbourne Ska Orchestra


Presented by X-Press Magazine, the Melbourne Ska Orchestra hit the Fly By Night on Friday, September 27; the Astor Theatre on Saturday, September 28, and the Wave Rock Weekender (sold out) on Sunday, September 29. BOB GORDON speaks with bandleader, Nicky Bomba.

There’s something about ska music. It’s seductive yet friendly; it has a natural way with people whether they are familiar with it or not – if you’ve ever seen an unsuspecting crowd suddenly lose themselves to dance in front of a ska band at a music festival you’ll understand the sentiment.

Yet there’s also something of a duopoly about ska music, that it’s a niche music form. That it belongs to mods. That it’s not for everyone, when clearly, it is.

“That’s what I’m planning to change,” says Melbourne Ska Orchestra bandleader, Nicky Bomba. “That’s the whole thing. I really believe it is one of the great universal forms of music. It’s very simple in its construction but when it comes together it’s a lot of different rhythms that make up the ska groove. You can actually dance and listen to it on a lot of different levels, without realising what rhythm you’re sticking to. It could be a half-time, it could be a double-time and some people, if their activity is more frenetic, they could be picking up on another thing as well.

“My idea is to actually take ska out of that niche thing and translate that to the masses, really. I really believe that I’ve seen it – I’ve seen grandparents and little children just bugging to it. It’s got a jump to it that’s a natural thing.”  And then there’s the threads.

“What I like about it is that it’s also associated with styling up,” Bomba notes. “Looking sharp. Actually making an effort to present yourself like it’s a bit of an occasion. I like that about ska. The whole Two-Tone thing, especially.”

Imagine, then, the 30-odd Melbourne Ska Orchestra members backstage before a show, all together, a suited-up army going into well-dressed battle, taking with them a headful of reggae, dancehall, rock steady, calypso and mento. Ska.

“It definitely has a sense of theatre about it,” Bomba agrees. “And the feeling of having a unified approach.  The feeling backstage, beforehand, you can’t help it, it’s always a party. Just by having that many people there. It’s like a rent-a-crowd, immediately.

“And the spirit in the band is really up. It’s a really kind of positive group of people that understand the genre and the logistics of what it takes to put something like this together. Surprisingly, it flows quite nicely.”

Known for fronting his own band, Bomba, its calypso conclusion Bustamento and, until recently, as drummer in the John Butler Trio (he is also Butler’s brother-in-law so the connection still runs deep) the multi-instrumentalist first put together the Melbourne Ska Orchestra in 2003. It was a one-off performance at St Kilda’s Gershwin Room; a world record attempt at having the largest amount of horn players onstage at the same time. With a Melbourne scene that boasted the likes of Bomba, Area-7, Commissioner Gordon, Trojan Horns, Strange Tenants and more, there were plenty of players to draw on.

It’s unclear if the record was broken or not, but the enthusiasm and interest in the gathering of the tribe was the main thing.

“What happened out of that was this commitment to continuing it,” Bomba recalls. “Everyone was up for being in the band and getting together to perform, which in the first couple of years was only once or twice a year. I managed to get the band on Bluesfest one year and WOMAD and it was like, ‘well, let’s step up here’. I started writing songs for it and getting the show happening.

“My idea is to actually take ska out of that niche thing and translate that to the masses, really. I really believe that I’ve seen it – I’ve seen grandparents and little children just bugging to it. It’s got a jump to it that’s a natural thing.”

“After our second Bluesfest we were approached by a record company (Four|Four) to record an album. It was perfect timing. I’d been writing songs in the genre anyway, then went home and wrote a few more and recorded it and now we’re a fully-fledged activity and organisation. On paper it’s a bit of a nightmare, but it works.”

Bomba says that the Melbourne Ska Orchestra’s self-titled debut album was challenging to record and arrange but it certainly seems as though it was enjoyable all the way. After a decade as a live act only, the tide has turned in favour of the Melbourne Ska Orchestra, momentum has met opportunity in a way Bomba has not previously encountered in his own bands.

“It’s amazing,” he says. “I really feel like we’re sort of proper players in the scene now.  We’ve played Golden Plains, Bluesfest and WOMAD, we’re doing the Queenscliff and Caloundra festivals and we hit home runs every time. People have been really getting on board with it.

“So it feels like it’s not just a side project or something, it’s a proper musical force. It’s something that we’ll be writing more for; the possibilities, with all the instrumentation, are endless. It’s just about writing good songs and getting it out there, really.”

With sold-out gigs around the country, overseas shows in the offing, TV synchs (the free-to-air-TV ad features MSO’s take on The Best Things In Life Are Free) and more single releases, it would seem that Bomba’s mission to take ska to the people is succeeding.
The people are loving it.

“It’s quite unique,” he says, happily. “The whole thing’s a bubbling, viable, ramshackle circus.”

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