Nicky Bomba is always chomping at the bit for something for to do.
He's had his drumsticks in many pies over the years, including John Butler Trio, Bustamento and Bomba. But it's perhaps his most unusual group whose debut LP has started to gain momentum. Bomba claims Melbourne Ska Orchestra started off "as a bit of a joke" - who knew that ten years later it would wind up on top of the ARIA Jazz and Blues chart.
"We wanted to set a world record for how many horn players we could get on stage at the one time doing the upbeat of the ska — the 'skank'. So we put the word out to see if anyone was interested and we were surprised with how many people wanted to be involved. The gig we ended up doing was massive — people had to be turned away at the door! It was a real celebration of ska and reggae and we totally forgot about the world record attempt. The band was born."
With that gig, Bomba picked up his newborn act, scraped the afterbirth from its face, severed the umbilical cord and took it home. Melbourne Ska Orchestra isn't really a band though, so much as it is a roving, raving machine of good vibes, loud horns and chaos. The word 'orchestra' isn't used lightly here, either. This is literally a ska orchestra, with Bomba at the helm.
"Stranger things have happened. I like to give myself projects, so I probably would have started some kind of ska band eventually. But this really played out on a silver platter, with 30 people jumping up and down. The [ska] scene was always there, but lately with the influx of technology and people being exposed to more music it’s become very healthy."
Listening to Nicky Bomba talk about ska music is like watching a classic ‘80s buddy cop movie. Bomba is like the hardened cop on the streets a week out from retiring, with ska music that sassy new recruit that keeps changing the radio station in Bomba's car. A friendship grows, and a crime-solving montage ensues.
"I think it's one of the most universal forms of music; there's a lot of different rhythmic equations, and it usually brings a kind of positive, uplifting vibe. When ska hit the planet in 1963, the backdrop was that of Jamaica becoming independent and having this youthful exuberance at being able to do their own thing. There was an energy there. That's pillar one. But I got into ska on the second wave — bands like Madness, Specials, Selecter, the whole two-tone thing, you know?
That was a reflection of Thatcher's England, and of the racial violence that was happening."
The hardest task Bomba's been faced with of late has been taking his infatuation with all things ska and squeezing it into an album. With MSO furiously jumping up and down since 2003, how does one capture that energy in the space of one CD?
"We ended up recording 20 songs with a couple of covers. But what we tried to do when we put the album together was to have a real balanced representation of early ska, two-tone, and Melbourne ska. There's also four singers in the band, so we wanted to make sure that all the singers were showcased."
As exciting as MSO's debut is, there’s no doubt the outfit is best sampled live. At times it can feel like Bomba is barely in control of this renegade group of horn-wielding skatalites, a scene that this sticksman is only too comfortable with.
"I love the idea of it as a ramshackle train that I'm the crazy conductor of. I like things when they're just about to fall off the edge! The orchestra is a really beautiful setting for that. It's incredible how uplifting it is to have so many people on stage focused on just having a good time and playing music that they love. It's hard to describe. There's a lot of love there, and there's hardly any train wrecks."
Melbourne Ska Orchestra play the Tivoli May 11. Their self-titled debut is out now.