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Stars of Ska: The Melbourne Ska Orchestra Are Back

Stars Of Ska: Melbourne Ska Orchestra Are Back

It’s been three years since the Melbourne Ska Orchestra (MSO) released their eponymous album. It generated lots of excitement and arguably put ska music back on the map.

Now the orchestra is ready to drop their new album, ‘Sierra-Kilo-Alpha’, and conductor Nicky Bomba is feeling pumped. “We’re all excited about the new album,” he says. “It’s got a lot of new sounds. I think we’ve taken a step up and it’s a beautiful thing from a musician’s perspective.”

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Before going any further, it’s probably best to discuss the history of ska music. “Jamaica had just got radio in the ’50s,” Nicky explains. “They would listen to a lot of the boogie-woogie. So the Jamaicans listened to this then played this their particular way, but then when the recording industry started there, producers like Chris Blackwell [Blondie, The B-52’s] said ‘we need to record this’.

“Jamaica had just gotten its independence and this music was synonymous with that time. There was an energy about it, a sense of hope and joy. Ska has a big emphasis on the backbeat of the guitar and the horns and the keyboards on the upbeat. So that makes it very danceable. It’s a universal rhythm.”

Nicky mentions the importance of the smash song ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by Millie Small in 1964. “That was a classic ska tune and it kind of put Jamaica on the map. The essence of the music became reggae, rocksteady, dancehall, lover’s rock, but it started with ska.” A couple of decades later it was bands like Madness and The Specials flying the flag for the genre.

“The first wave was from Jamaica in the ’60s, and then a lot of Jamaicans moved to London. Then that second generation from West Indian parents would mix with white English kids and they’d form a band. That’s how the 2 Tone thing happened; 2 Tone being black and white, but also mixing up reggae and punk.”

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The hybrid of different styles appealed to a young Nicky and has stuck with him ever since. “There was a sense of belonging around that time because as an adolescent, you styled up, looked sharp and the music’s energy was exhilarating. That 2 Tone stuff was how I got into it and is an important part of the ska story.” Let’s fast forward to 2003. Nicky and some other hip cats formed a group to celebrate the 40th anniversary of ska, but the full orchestra was still a pipe dream.

“We thought about it in 2003 but we just played once a year for a few years. Then in 2010 we decided to make it a fully-fledged band and write songs. The Melbourne Ska Orchestra was a combination of early ska and 2 Tone ska and we mixed it together and we’re still doing that.”

The group’s new album was issued on the Sydney-based Four Four label, who Nicky has a lot of time for. “To run an orchestra like this is left of centre. So a standard record label probably wouldn’t know what to do with it and would expect something that the band couldn’t deliver. So you want to have independence.

“Four Four approached us to sign us and when we saw that they were promoting live, raw, real music with the idea that the artist have a lot of control of the look, sound and direction, we knew it was a perfect fit.

“We need financial assistance to exist. You’d have to mortgage your house to do it by yourself. Touring is all off our own back; it’s a risk and a financial commitment. With this label, I can talk to the head and implement changes immediately and it doesn’t have to go through red tape. I can’t work any other way. As a band we change tack a lot.”

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Speaking of money, considering the groups size, if you think the band are all living in mansions, as Darryl Kerrigan would say, you’re dreamin’. “It’s not an income earner for any member of the band. When we played Glastonbury we had to pay $8,000 just for the tents to sleep for three nights. So we all know how it works. It’s not a financial venture at all, if anything it’s a black hole. But it’s not what we’re on this planet for.”

Nicky notes the differences between the two albums and says fans should expect a bit more grit this time around. “The role of any artist is to be challenging and keep it fresh. We’ve definitely gone for a bit of a tougher sound which was a purposeful thing.

“If there were any criticisms of the first album, it was that people who wouldn’t play it said they thought it sounded ‘old’ and ‘nice’ and wasn’t hard-hitting enough. Not that we would say we got it wrong because it was exactly the album we wanted to make at the time. As a band, we’re a beautiful collective and by a loose democracy we kind of went ‘this is where we need to go’ with the new album.

“Any band wants to be played alongside a hit record. You want your work to be appreciated and it’s a bonus if it becomes a hit. It’s not something you do purposely like ‘I’m going to write a hit song’; you just write your best music and present it in a format that radio presenters will see as relevant. And that was the big thing with this album, we wanted a MSO vibe but with a contemporary presentation.

“We’ve also done something special with the CD which will include 3-D glasses and a booklet so you can take it home and say ‘I haven’t just bought a bunch of files’ and you’ll have something tangible.”

Being on a smaller label hasn’t deterred Nicky’s ambitions. “As long as you’re presenting your best work and you’re aware of the presentation required, you can be on the same level as Madonna. We did a lot of work to make sure we weren’t compromising the sonic ability of the band without it sounding sanitised and I think we’ve done that with the new album.”

In case you’re wondering how such a large bunch of people gets the job done, Nicky says the relaxed vibe of the players helps enormously. “We have about 40 people floating around depending on where we’re playing and who’s available. But generally we feel like we’re all part of the family. We spend a bit of time to make sure it’s an inclusive thing from the songwriting to the rehearsals to the videos.

“We hire a lot of buses. It’s like a travelling soccer team; everything’s done in bulk. There’s more love in this band and less hassles than some of the smaller bands I’ve been in. Don’t even ask about catering!” he laughs.

Another band highlight of 2016 will be when MSO play at the Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains. “I played there last year and asked if the MSO could do a gig there. It’s a special, sacred place and it reverberates like you wouldn’t believe.”

Still unsure what ska is?

“Community, fun, hope and danger. All thrown in together.”

(originally published http://scenestr.com.au/music/stars-of-ska-melbourne-ska-orchestra-are-back)

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