Melbourne Ska Orchestra; An Amazing Ancient Ritual that is a Sacred Journey For All
One of the things I love most about this job is that not only do I get to discover great new music, I also get to learn more about my favourites. This is what happened when I got the chance to interview Nicky Bomba, the lead and director of the Melbourne Ska Orchestra (MSO). You never really know what you’ll get when you interview someone. You prepare sure, you write down a list of questions that you hope will be insightful and at least vaguely interesting for the subject of the interview. Then you cross your fingers and hope for the best.
What I got was an education on the history of ska and why it’s so awesome. As the name suggests the MSO is a ska band. It began as a one off gig in 2003 to mark the 40th anniversary of Millie Small’s version of ‘My Boy Lollipop’, widely credited as the first commercially successful ska record. Played at Melbourne’s iconic Gershwin room the tribute brought together musicians from across the city and produced some exceptional music. Bomba says that they all had so much fun and it turned out so well, it became an annual thing. It was a full decade later that the group which at times had anywhere from 17 to 34 members recorded their first album. The MSO like so much that comes out of Melbourne is cool, multicultural (up to 215 nationalities are represented) and a coming together of different ideas about music and creativity.
I asked Nicky what drew he, and the other band members to the ska genre in particular. He told me that for most of them their introduction came from their love for the British Two Tone phenomenon, think bands like The Specials, The Selecter, Madness. The sound originated from the West Indian community in London. Struggling to find a sense of place, and to have a voice, British Two Tone brought Jamaica to the streets of London. It was about community and belonging. With its beginnings in the late 70’s and spanning through the 80’s these bands were at the forefront during the Thatcher era. Their bright, joyful sounds carried with them deeper political messages about race relations, and broader social upheavals.
My education continued, Nicky explained to me that in Jamaica, where ska music began. It was a way for the locals to add their own stamp to the R&B tracks they were hearing coming out of the Southern United States. Music entrepreneurs such as Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid formed rival sound systems trying to produce more and better music than the other, attracting as many music fans into their venues as they could squeeze in. The result was more and more music, with new songs released every week- on a Friday. Fans would flock to hear the latest tunes hot off the turntables.
It was with this spirit in mind that the MSO embarked on their most recent project. An ambitious endeavour, in 2018 they set themselves a challenge to record-and release- a new song every week for a year, that’s 52 songs! Nicky says it was crazy, in the end they had four albums’ worth of material. They covered the traditional standards of the genre, ska versions of popular film and tv themes (the “Star Wars theme” is especially cool) and a whole swag of new and original songs written by members of the band. By the end, the band members were sleeping and eating in the studio. But it was an amazing experience, all performers were moving in the same direction working toward creating this wonderful thing. Egos were left at the door, and it was just a year of making fabulous music together.