Melbourne Ska Orchestra, led by none other than Australian music legend Nicky Bomba, sport an ever-changing lineup – ranging from a minimum of 20 musicians to a maximum of 32 – with a decent helping of lavish instrumentation and a proud message to match.
Their music attracts listeners ready to embrace the positive vibes of both the traditional ska sound and thought-provoking improvisation.
“We actually don’t do a great deal of rehearsal, but we’re pretty efficient behind the scenes,” Bomba says. “It’s usually just a soundcheck, or if we’re playing a full tour we’ll book in some dates for a studio. But theoretically we all normally just do our homework and roll up to the gig and play. We did a new song off the new albumrecently while rehearsing before a gig in Melbourne and it all sounded a bit too nice, so we kind of just wanted to make it a bit more of a challenge for ourselves as musicians, so we stopped rehearsing like that and now everyone learns their parts individually. It’s just so much of a blessing to be surrounded by so many incredibly talented musicians who are all on the same wavelength.
“Even when we play overseas we pick up a lot of session musicians because a lot of the time we can’t afford to fly everyone over,” adds Bomba. “We’ve actually got a bit of an international cast happening now – it feels like we’ve taken this whole thing worldwide.”
With a band so enormous in size, it wouldn’t be hard to believe a clash of ideas might arise from time to time, even creating division within a group that so heavily relies on its improvisation and positive energy to create. But Bomba claims that’s never even an issue – his bandmates contribute in a variety of ways that may be unorthodox, but are essential to the continuation of the project.
“When it comes to writing ideas, anyone can contribute anything,” he says. “It can be scribbled on a napkin, on an iPhone, an iPad – it honestly doesn’t matter. We actually do a bit of a song camp thing every now and then at my house where we have our own ideas and commit to a deadline. Everyone just puts forward their own material and we just build off that. I think that kind of process is really important, and coming from the melting pot of cultural diversity that is Melbourne, it’s essential that we have so many members with so many different nationalities because we are trying to make international ska. It’s kind of inevitable, really. Surprisingly, we’re all looking at the same focus and we all get what each other are trying to do.”
Since their inception in the early ’90s, Melbourne Ska Orchestra have never aimed at normality, but having adapted a sound that pays homage to soulful Jamaican mento music, Bomba is quick to point out that the broader genre of ska is one that all the members of the band are deeply passionate about.
“I feel like ska covers all the genres of music because it was the mother seed from way back,” he says. “That culmination of traditional music with the heavy backbeat has always spoken to us on a deeper level. It’s just got such an element of danger and excitement that appeals to us, especially when you look at its roots within the black and white struggle against oppression in some parts of England since its inception. And that’s what’s exciting – ska has as much relevance today as it did back then. From a lyrical perspective, from an energy perspective, it really aligns itself with what we’re trying to do with the Orchestra, and we couldn’t be happier with the way it’s being received.”
Bomba believes that much of MSO’s success has come through their commitment to intimate shows, where the band can be judged solely on musical merit. But he admits that music festivals are the best places for the energy and positive vibe to be fully represented.
“The beautiful thing about a festival is that you’ve got an audience that comes to be part of something that’s not just about the music, but the experience as a whole,” he says. “But on the same token, we’ve done some theatre gigs where the atmosphere was just as electric. We’re always trying to make the best out of any situation we can adapt to to share our craft. I feel like there’s enough musical conversation happening within the band to draw people in and create an experience for anyone and everyone. But I think for us to exist in this industry is more than we could have ever hoped for.
“Sharing music to people and raising the vibrations is definitely important to any musician, but the Orchestra is a wholesome and beautiful magic carpet ride. I’ve really never experienced anything like it – 20 or 30 like-minded people understanding the skill and technique of a live performance; it’s really beautiful to watch and even more of a pleasure to be a part of. It’s a massive positive force.”
Melbourne Ska Orchestra have also recently launched their appropriately named Ska-BQ tour, which encompasses traditional ska and Jamaican music jam-packed into a celebration of the culture in all its forms, including smoking Carribean-style barbecues, drinks, scooters and more. Bomba says the Melbourne edition of the Ska-BQ in January went over pretty swimmingly, and he is excited to bring the vibe to Sydney in early March.
“You don’t have to be a lover of ska to enjoy this. Just a music lover. We played with that connection in Melbourne and it was a huge success, so we’re very excited about bringing it to Sydney. People were totally barbecued out by the time we played at 8pm, including us! It’s going to be a wonderful day.”
[Melbourne Ska Orchestra photo by Ian Laidlaw]