Melbourne Ska Orchestra

Melbourne Ska Orchestra are bringing their unique brand of ska to Adelaide and its a show not to be missed. Their One Year of Ska mission is now complete having written fifty two songs in fifty two weeks and the hard work has paid off with the nomination for Best World Album at this years ARIA Awards. Nicky Bomba chatted to the Hi Fi Way about the process of creating a song a week and the resurgence of ska.

You’re One Year of Ska mission of one song a week for 52 weeks was completed earlier this year.
Yeah and we just got nominated for an ARIA for it!

Oh wow! That’s great news. Congratulations! Tell us a bit about the album One Year of Ska?
That particular album was broken up into four albums of thirteen. The first batch was like if you ever need to get a library or bible of ska, we played thirteen ska classics.  So that’s what the first thirteen are, classic songs like Message to Ruby, Night Boat to Cairo and Monkey Man.

The second album is all TV and Movie themes and we do them all in ska. We do the Skippy theme, Game of Thrones, Star Wars and Austin Powers all in ska.

The next twenty six are completely original rock songs we wrote on the spot for the project and that was when it got hard. The other songs were already written and we just had to do our own version of them but writing 26 songs, once a week was like a mission and a half. I wouldn’t do it again in a hurry. I would do a version of it but it was so good to bog down and just do a serious piece of work and now be celebrated for it with an ARIA.

How was the One Year of Ska experience? Was it fun, was it frustrating, was it challenging?
Yeah it was all of that actually! The reason I started that in the first place we realised the musical landscape had changed and getting releases and putting out albums in the traditional sense didn’t really kind of resonate anymore. It didn’t seem to translate to the public about getting our music out anymore. So, we thought why don’t we just write a lot or just put out things often and then we thought ok let’s do once a month and someone said “Why don’t we do a song a week?” And a song a week when I thought about it was very much like the old producers from early Jamaica where they would have their sound systems on the weekend and the people that operated the sound systems also had a recording studio.

They would record songs for each week and they would tell people “Are you going to come and hear this new tune?” and that would get the crowd to their particular sound system. Then the rival sound system would do the same thing and they would say “nah you gotta come and hear our new tune, we’ve written it about this particular guy…” So, it became competitive but the result was so much music was made and in an atmosphere of creativity and healthy competition. That if anything kind of inspires you to be creative. It’s a good thing and it required a lot of discipline. So, when we started out on the adventure it was like “Yaay! This is gonna be good!” but by the end of it, (laughs) it was a lot of crazy late nights. Coordinating horn players and keyboardists to come in the crazy hours of the morning to put stuff down and write things on the spot and lyrics right into the last minute.

It was a real testimony to the love and the passion that the band has for being in a band like this. Its pretty unlikely that a band like this would’ve even got off the ground so that fact that we’ve been nominated for ARIAs and we’ve won one and toured around the world, you know its pretty special. You feel that energy is there and we give love to it. The four albums (box set) is a result of pure love and energy. When you have that attitude a lot can be achieved.

You’ve been in other bands and been in music a long time. What drew you to ska music?
Ska is actually the Godfather of all things reggae, dancehall, lovers rock and that type of thing and the start of the family tree starts with ska around 1963 when the Jamaicans developed a rhythmic style of playing that was quite specific to the island. It was a combination of old mento folk music and the RnB music that was being played on the radio stations on the sound systems. There was a time all the record supplies and even RnB wasn’t popular anymore in America but the Jamaicans still loved it and they adopted this particular heavy backbeat on the guitar that was even called the ska. It was (sings the sound) “ski ska ski ska” the backbeat. That was really the corner stone of everything and it went from there to all those two-tone bands you heard in the early 80s like Madness and The Specials. They were all basically doing cover versions of songs from the 60s but they had their own tilt to it and they had a bit more of a punk edge to it because of the punk scene at the time in London.

So, reggae met with punk and there was this new infused energy called the two-tone era or the UK sound. So, what we’re thinking of doing with the orchestra now with ska we are reflecting what’s happening in Melbourne which is the multi-cultural mix. Our albums are full songs around South American Cumbian, Latino, Funk, some New Orleans and Mambo so we’re trying to mix it up to represent all that. Some songs are sung in Spanish so that’s kind of what our take on it is and we love sharing that with people. That’s why it was easy in many ways to compose initial ideas for the 52 songs because there’s a wealth of talent and information in the ranks of the orchestra.

Do you think that ska music is underrated in Australia? Or is it having a resurgence?
Ska music has always been there and it just had peaks. It had a peak in obviously when it was invented then you had the UK two-tone thing and then the American wave with bands like No Doubt, Fishbone and Sublime. Then where we are now is there is a new emergence and I think a band like ours is partly responsible for that and we’ve been given awards all around the world. Our songs have been included in films about ska in the UK so yeah, we’re doing something a little bit different and we’re celebrating with lots of joy and we’re 25 people on stage which is a whole beast in itself (laughs). Its like touring with two soccer teams you know!

How did you come about creating the Melbourne Ska Orchestra?
We all started in 2003 as a bit of a joke. We just wanted to see how many people we could get on stage. It was also the 40th anniversary of ska and the 40th year of the song My Boy Lollipop came out which was a huge hit around the world and it put ska and Jamaica on the map. So, we were celebrating that and then we thought we’ll try set a world record to see how many horn players we can get on stage to do the skank. We had such an amazing time we ended up turning away about 300 or 400 people and completely forgot about the world record because it just became this massive night of celebration of ska.

We played lots of hits from the ska classics like the band The Skatalites and basically covering all the songs that turned the ska community on to music in the first place. When we recorded our first album and were offered recording contract when we played Bluesfest we basically used that template as a template to write our songs so we’d do a song like Confucius or Perfidia and it gave us an inspiration to write our own things. It was the way that kicked everything off.

How do you get the band around the whole logistics of it?
We’ve got it down to a well-oiled machine where people have to answer really quickly because if they don’t answer someone else will take the gig. There’s like 4 or 5 members for every member in the band that wants to join. We have a list of whoever would like to be involved. There’s a bit of a revolving door when it comes to musicians in a band. There’s probably about 40 or 50 people on the list at any one time. With buses, accommodation, transport and who gets to sleep with who and who snores the loudest (laughs) its classic really! But like I said before because there’s a lot of love involved and its not really our everyday thing, we can’t really make a living from it, there’s none of the frustrations of this has to provide for us on a daily basis. Because of that it creates a sense of joy every time we get together. Our band rooms are like parties and in the Green room its like you don’t need to go on stage its all happening in the band room! (laughs).

But I suppose everyone is there because they love it. Its not a regular kind of gig.
No its not and we’re trying to build that up where we are reshuffling a lot of our agencies and management things at the moment to take it up to a new level. We’ve just had a lot of offers from overseas and it needs to be consolidated. Its not something I can do myself. You need a good team of people working on that stuff all the time and we should just be concentrating on the music.

You’re bringing the show to The Gov in Adelaide. How many band members are coming?
On stage there’s never more than 25 or 26. In Melbourne sometimes we’ll get up to 30 but for Adelaide we’re bringing 24. We all help each other out. The Gov is a great gig. We always have a fantastic time to and tickets are selling pretty fast. Its good to connect with Adelaide again and fingers crossed we might be playing in Womadelaide next year. We are in negotiations at the moment.

What can we expect from the live show?
If you’ve never seen the Orchestra then it’s a spectacle to behold. To have that many people on stage all with the intention of just having a great time and really connecting with the audience. All members individually connect everyones actually active on stage. I saw some footage of us playing recently and I went “Wow! Is that really happening behind me?” I didn’t know what was going on, I mean the trumpet player was doing this stuff behind me.

So, it’s a joyful occasion. It’s a celebration of life really. Because we’re trying to cover all aspects of humanity in our songs with highs and lows. The whole kind of rollercoaster of life in our set. I think that’s kind of our forte. We really connect with people. It’s not just about us performing. Its about us making that night, that moment something special that’s never happened before and will never happen again. That’s my intention on stage anyway. I try to look for new things every night to see if someone’s doing something different or if someone wants to get up or a bit of a best dressed competition. It’s all celebrating humanity.

Interview by Anastasia Lambis