“From a musical perspective, ska has a percussive aspect that’s almost from another world, the one-drop, the skank and the sharp guitar,” says Nicky Bomba, drummer and notional leader of the Melbourne Ska Orchestra. “The important thing about ska is that it has many different layers of rhythms. You can dance to it fast, you can dance to it half-time. It’s all simple. It comes together like cogs in a machine. Still to this day I’ll put on some ska and I can’t help moving and being sucked into that vortex.”
Bomba first came across ska via Two Tone, the UK label that released records by such legendary ska bands as The Specials and the British Beat. There was a vitality about the music, and an attractive aesthetic. “There was a sense of belonging about those bands, the way they were all styled up,” Bomba says. “I thought ‘I wanna be part of that.’ ” When Bomba realised that ska songs such as The Specials’ Message to You Rudy were in fact covers, he immersed himself in the rich history of ska and its Caribbean antecedents. “That’s when the whole world exploded and I realised about Prince Buster, Elton Ellis, Allan Gray, Toots and the Maytals. There was a really fresh energy about the music.”
In 2003, Bomba and PBS DJ Mohair Slim decided to celebrate the release of arguably the first ska record, Millie Small’s 1963 hit My Boy Lollipop. A one-off gig at the Esplanade Hotel became an annual ska celebration; by 2009 the Melbourne Ska Orchestra, featuring anywhere between 17 and 35 members, was touring regularly in Australia. A recording contract with Four Four Records followed, with Melbourne Ska Orchestra’s eponymous debut album released in 2013. A second album, Sierra-Kilo-Alpha, followed in April this year, affirming the Melbourne Ska Orchestra’s reputation.
“Initially the label just wanted us to do covers, but we said we had our own songs as well, and we wanted to have our own voice,” Bomba says. “We’ve got so many great musicians, and we’ve got a really strong multi-cultural mix as well: Scottish, Venezuelan, Trinidadian, Maltese, English, everything’s there. We’ve got the library to choose from.
“The first album was very much a tribute to the old school and the pioneers, and we also started exploring some hybrids. With the second album, it’s an advancement of that, it’s a more thought-out production. The first album sounded more vintage, and the second album can stand up against any contemporary release. We think we got the formula right. And I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can do. The idea is to be constantly creative, constantly trying new ideas.”
By the time the Melbourne Ska Orchestra had finished recording for Sierra-Kilo-Alpha, it had 22 songs, only 11 of which were featured on the album. Unwilling to ignore the other tracks, Bomba and the band decided to release another record, Saturn Return. Like Sierra-Kilo-Alpha, which came with a 3D album cover, booklet and comic book-style images, Saturn Return has a distinctive presentation: a spaceship-shaped USB and electronic liner notes that refer to the orchestra’s search for “the eternal S.K.A. codes” in the “Saturn scene”.
“Music has been reduced to files a lot of the time, so when you’re presenting something, it has to be something that makes people notice,” Bomba says. “That’s why we went with the USB spaceship design for Saturn Return. That’s one of the different things we’re doing with the Orchestra. It’s a tactile, artistic product that you can really have fun with.”
2017 promises to continue Melbourne Ska Orchestra’s quest to ‘discover the eternal frequencies’ of ska. In late January the Orchestra plays Shimmerlands at the University of Melbourne, followed by shows in March in Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney. The Orchestra will also head back overseas. “We have a great band, great energy, and some of our shows are absolute mayhem,” Bomba says.
By Patrick Emery