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March 7, 2021

Melbourne Ska Orchestra’s got the vibe

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Melbourne Ska Orchestra
Melbourne Ska Orchestra

Thirteen years ago a bunch of musicians decided to have a crack at the world record for the largest number of horns on stage at the same time playing ska-skank.

That was how Melbourne Ska Orchestra was born, with an album making its way into the world back in 2013 garnering two ARIA nominations! The Echo spoke with Nicky Bomba about this dynamic outfit headlining Island Vibe at North Stradbroke Island 30 October–1 November.

What was the inspiration for getting a 26-piece band together?

We were celebrating the 40th anniversary of ska and wanted to do something big. Lots of horns, lots of fun, lots of great tunes and a big bucket of mayhem.

We tried to set a world record for how many horn players we could get onstage… it wasn’t really official but I think we achieved it on that night.

How does it make the musical style even more exciting?

Well when you have the soundscape of an orchestra the possibilities are endless, coupled with the diverse cultural influences that exist within the band and the musical history, it’s really just up to the imagination where you want to go.

What are the major challenges? How hard is it to get everyone to rehearsal?

Logistics and finance are the major missions, catering when we record, accommodation, transport, etc. We have a great team behind the scenes that know the mechanics behind this ramshackle train.

Surprisingly, to date, there’s been no major train wrecks! Rehearsal… hmmmm… they usually happen at sound checks!

What is the thrill of being part of such a big dynamic outfit?

The energy onstage is something to behold. When you have a group of like-minded musicians all on the same page, combining their effort to make a night really work, it’s like a fun-filled rollercoaster ride.

How do you work up a piece – do you, Nicky, take the lead and build it through?

Usually we all write things separately then bring our ideas into the collective pool and see what shakes. We are capable of turning things around quickly, capturing the essence of a song. Some songs take longer but we try to accommodate everyone’s ideas. We had 20-odd ideas for the latest album and they all came up sweet.

Tell me about your latest single release Satellite – how it was written, and how you nailed down the sound with the orchestra…

I was jamming around (writing/playing) with my loop machine and a baritone guitar. I’ve been experimenting with hybrid rhythms and different ways to approach the engine of a song.

This particular groove and progression stuck out as being energising and fun, trademarks of the orchestra. I envisaged Pat, Steve and me having separate verses to showcase the different vibes and keep the attention high. The bridge was reminiscent of a classic English beat vibe and the bass was inspired by Janelle Monae’s Tightrope. Barry added some love to the horn theme and Dorian made some great spicy suggestions to add excitement. The song was originally a lot longer but it’s quite common to trim the fat and condense the ideas to get real punch for a 3–4-minute listening experience. We headed into the studio for a preliminary session with the loop template as the starting point then added extra ideas once we got the meat and potatoes sorted. It was a totally fun experience. As with every track, we dissected some more to essentially make it strong and consistent with unexpected twists; the clip being awesome was the icing on the cake.

Do you encourage players to be theatrical in their presentation?

Being part of an orchestra how does a player ‘claim their moment’?

When performing live we all have a sense of theatre but it’s more a collective approach. There are solo moments of course but these work in the context of the song and the journey as opposed to players struttin’ their stuff. We don’t take well to inflated egos in this group.

Did you ever expect the Melbourne Ska Orchestra to build such an enthusiastic following?

Our philosophy is to make the best music we can, enjoy ourselves and share the love. I still think we have a long sweet road to travel to reach the point where we can become self-sufficient.

Most orchestras or bands of this size are usually subsidised. We’re obviously chuffed at the good vibes heading our way but complacent minstrels we are not.

What do you get out of your involvement?

The joy of captaining a wonderful musical ship where, for the most part, we are one big happy family. There’s a lot of love in the band

What should we expect for your performance at Island Vibe?

We are being joined by some great musicians so it will be a special gig indeed. We love seeing a crowd connect with our songs and energy and from my past experience with Island vibe – it’s going to be Shweeeeeeeeeet!

For more information about the program and ticketing go to islandvibe.com.au.

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