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March 2, 2021

Interview with Melbourne Ska Orchestra

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Melbourne Ska Orchestra are on at Bluesfest

Bluesfest Byron Bay | 18-22 April

The Melbourne Ska Story

Formed in 2003, the Melbourne Ska Orchestra is an orchestra with a difference. Comprising up to 36 members, this juggernaut contains some of Australia’s finest musicians and performers. The band can perform with as little as 18 members and as many as 36. Led and directed by the energetic and charismatic Nicky Bomba (John Butler Trio, Bomba, Bustamento), they are a force to be reckoned with.

The band began as a group of Melbourne musicians celebrating 40 years of ska. What is it about ska that generated so much enthusiasm in your first gig back in in 2003?

Well, the ska genre has had many different incarnations, from the 60s through to the 80s 2Tone movement through to the US west coast sound. There was definitely a feeling that Melbourne was blossoming into a hub for some great new ska/reggae bands. The gig was a celebration of the history, the influence on style, the attitude and the cultural musical joy the genre brought.

There was so much excitement and good energy in the room that we decided to make it a permanent thing, so the band was officially formed.

What does ska mean to you?

Its all about community for me. Creating a space where the band and crowd are all connected and we go on a positive vibration journey together. Ska was the original seed before reggae, rocksteady, dancehall and all the offshoots. There is a sense of joy and danger combined that is uplifting in many ways. It also appeals to all ages and that’s one of things I enjoy the most. Seeing children to grandparents having a smiling boogie.

In each of your albums you have made a concerted effort to ‘find what we were offering to the ska genre’ and ‘to create hybrids’. Can you tell us more about what this means with respect to your new album?

There is wonderful mixture of nationalities within the band, a direct reflection of the makeup of Melbourne itself. As a group that started as a tribute band, we knew that if we were to respect the genre, we had to offer something new. Our ARIA winning album Sierra Kilo Alpha was the first time we really explored new hybrids and the award was an indication we were doing something right. With these new albums, given there were 52 songs to negotiate, we wanted to give a complete picture of the ska story as we know it. I think we pushed the envelope as far as we could into the jazz, funk, latin and dance worlds, creating a wonderful collection of tunes.

You guys have been working hard this year, releasing a new song every week for the entire year! That is an incredible feat, especially for such a big and diverse group. Where did the idea come from and what have been some of the challenges of keeping up with the program you dared to set yourselves?

We were all startlingly aware that the music industry and how people listen and buy music had drastically changed. There were conversations around just getting busy and writing songs and telling our story, whatever the situation may be. Art for art’s sake. Wally, our trombone player, suggested that a song a week might be fun. It took me back to the Jamaican sound system culture where producers and artists would record tracks for the weekly dance hall and would spread the word about the new tunes being played there exclusively. Now, a Kingston dance hall is a far cry from an internet release, but the mission felt the same. I felt we were tapping into another part of the ska tradition. It all started smoothly until the co-ordination got more complicated, we all still had families and lives to negotiate. The catering budget blew out, the deadlines got tighter and creative juices had to be squeezed harder. We kinda ran out of money around the 39th song so I had to put together a studio in Melbourne and have everybody on call. We were sleeping in the studio with the last couple of tracks and I think we could have retired by now on the amount of coffee we purchased. All in all though, it was an amazing experience and we completed the mission with flying colours.

Is song writing a collaborative effort across all the members, or is there a core group who are the song writers?

A bit of both. We put the word out for all members to keep throwing in ideas while we always had a shortlist of three or four songs that we could dive into. Some gems came to light and unsuspecting members shone through with great ideas. There was a core producer team that guided the songs into fruition and a further team during the mixing process. Democracy reigned supreme (except when Dean and I exercised our veto!).

You guys are playing at Bluesfest next year and bringing loads of the songs you wrote this year. Will you be bringing the whole group, the full band with you?

Oh yeah. We’re bringing all the bells and whistles and some guest singers. The hardest part will be working out which songs to leave out. We have such an extensive repertoire at the moment that we could easily do a four hour show…(and beyond!).

What can your fans and fans of ska in general expect from the MSO when they see them at Bluesfest this year?

If you’ve never seen a Melbourne Ska Orchestra show… ask someone who has. And we’ll simply add that the spectacle of the band on an international stage is a force of energy that will have you smiling from ear to ear and dancing till your feet wobble. We treat the audience as a friend that we’re taking on a journey. It is easily the most fun I have ever had on stage in my 40+ years of performing.

What else is on the cards for 2019 for you guys? Big events, tours, albums? Will you be continuing your one song per week regime this year also?

This year we will be concentrating on promoting the One Year Of Ska Box Set. 52 songs. The Bluesfest gig will actually be the first official performance on tour. We have some great gigs lined up here and overseas and we’re excited at the potential of the work we’ve done. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement. We won’t be doing anything of the like of a song a week for a while but we did love the fact that being disciplined into creating songs brought out the best in us. We’ll be starting a new writing regime after the tour as part of a continual process of constantly creating art. There are many fine minds within the band and a breadth of musical knowledge that is inspiring.

Anything else you want to let Byron people know about?

Make sure you check out our CDs and stuff in the merch tent. This year we’re making tea towels! Our first run sold out in days!

Melbourne Ska Orchestra are on at Bluesfest | 18–22 April | bluesfest.com.au

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