Interview: Melbourne Ska Orchestra

Melbourne Ska Orchestra 2016Nicky Bomba speaks to Luke Balzan


One of my favourite musical artists is Australia’s own Nicky Bomba. I’ve been watching him play in his various bands for many years now, and it was actually a concert of his that was the first music show I took my wife to see years before we got married.


There have been many guises for the Melbourne based musical genius, all with a unique soulful reggae edge to it, and his music has always left me happy. I’ve even come to know the man over time, and as a fellow Maltese chap, he seems like musical family! In recent times, his focus has been on his bands Bustamento, which showcases awesome reggae and calypso grooves, and his big juggernaut, the Melbourne Ska Orchestra (MSO), a 20-something piece outfit that first wowed audiences at WOMADelaide a few years ago, as one of the best acts of the weekend.


With a solid first album under their belts, MSO has continued to grow and develop, and with their latest offering Sierra Kilo Alpha (that’s S K A for the phonetically challenged!) having just been released, it was a good opportunity for me to catch up with my ol’ mate Nicky to see how things are going.


“Heeeeeey, kifinti! How are you man!” Nicky’s Maltese greeting rings out as he calls from a freezing cold Quebec City, where he was busily doing some solo shows. Of course, I was feeling fine on a warm autumn morning.


“Beautiful, that’s good man,” Nicky responds. “It’s good to hear your voice again!”

It had indeed been a long time.



Despite so much happening since I last spoke to Nicky, things had been going really well for him.

“I’ve been great,” he exclaims “I’m presently in Canada, but I’ve been flat out this year, it’s been lots of great stuff happening, and I’ve been active on many different fronts, and mainly concentrating on getting this new album up and running, and that’s been exciting! It’s been great to get involved in a whole new juggernaut, doing shows, writing for it… it’s been great, it’s been really good.

“And we’re coming to Adelaide, doing the Governor Hindmarsh again!”


It’s always great watching Nicky perform at the Gov, with the stage right in the middle and the crowds all around, it makes for such an intimate setting. And with the huge personnel numbers in the Orchestra all crowding in on the stage, there will be fantastic energy!

“We’ve always had great connections with the audience at the Gov,” Nicky recalls, “it is that kind of venue, you can’t help but be connected with the audience because they’re right there, with the way the place is set up and everything, and it’s not too big so it’s like a, kind of like a big lounge room! So I’m thinking of it like a big lounge room and we’re going to offer everybody cups of tea. ‘Would you like a cup o’ tea?’,” he chuckles in an English accent.


The intimacy of the venue and the connection with the band will play right into the hands of the MSO at what is sure to be a killer show.

“That’s the essence of the band, the connection with the audience has always been a big part of our make-up,” Nicky explains.

“It’s a beautiful thing as that’s the essence of what we’re trying to do with ska. Ska is a metaphor for community if you think about it: heaps of people on stage, doing their little bits to make something that’s quite beautiful, people working together… it’s a loose metaphor for humanity too. The sense of community; any time we can create that, and any venue that supports that, is great!”


Not only is it exciting that Nicky and the Orchestra are returning to Adelaide, but they’re peddling a whole swag of new tunes and goodies for people to enjoy. With the new album Sierra Kilo Alpha, they demonstrate just how much depth there is in ska music, that it’s more than just old-school Jamaican sounds, and there’s so much variety, from funk to old school to the new wave ’80s style, and more, with plenty of depth to be discovered with each successive listen.


“That was definitely the intention,” Nicky admits. “The first album was a combination of all these songs that we’d been playing as cover songs up until we recorded the album, so our first album was kind of a reflection of all the music that turned us on in the first place, and then with this new album, we wanted to take it a step further and offer something new. We wanted to say that Melbourne Ska Orchestra is defining their sound and their composition, so it was a definite considered effort to make, to go in that direction, to offer something new.


“That’s the beauty of the band: we’ve got a beautiful cross section of humanity, people from all walks of life are in the band. When you draw on all the goodness that’s in the band, there’s a lot there… we actually recorded 23 songs, and we’re going to be releasing more of them later on in the year. The idea is keeping the whole listening experience interesting; you’re taken on a bit of a journey and it’s got to the point where you can call it global ska, international ska. And being from Melbourne especially, with the multicultural mix that makes up the band, we wanted to really reflect that. It was really important, and I think we achieved it. I think we took our time, and having the 23 songs, we were able to, when we did the first batch of Sierra Kilo Alpha, we were able to fine tune and pick songs that really reflected that beautiful kaleidoscope of sound and colours that make up the international make-up of the band.”


If that was the band’s intention, then they certainly did a great job! For this music fan, listening to the album, it was very clear that you were being taken on a journey, a listening experience, and the whole things fit together beautifully. Not just a hodge-podge of individual tunes, but an album that flows like an album should.


“There’s a whole art in that,” Nicky muses. “I think that’s really interesting because, there’s many different ways and formulas for working out what you can do, and one of them is that you can do songs by how they work in terms of the keys of the songs, the tempos, the colour, the mood, where you’re trying to take people… For me, when we were putting the album together, it was very much an energy thing, each song has a particular kind of energy and colour, and we didn’t want to be too erratic, so the flow was very important and I’m glad you picked up on that, cos that’s exactly what we were trying to do! And it’s hard to please everybody too, when you’ve got that many people in the band, there can be opinions for days, but funnily enough, we were all on the same page, which is amazing given how many people are in the band and the different people who make up the band. It’s quite remarkable that we were able to have this kind of sense of direction.”


It’s nice to know that artists still care about such things when it comes to compiling albums, particularly in the modern musical landscape where the tendency is to just put together or download individual tracks. Having a cohesive piece of artwork in an album is great to see.

“Yeah, that’s a beautiful thing,” Nicky admits. “We try to make each album, even with the artwork of the album, it’s all in 3D. You get a pair of 3D glasses with the album, and the poster, the street poster, is in 3D, so if you’re in a café, and see the poster and have your 3D glasses, you can actually see the effect! It’s exactly what you said, because music is so disposable this days, especially with things like Spotify and Pandora and that, it’s basically like one big radio station, where you can listen to anything you want at any time. It’s good in some ways, but it also kind of dilutes the special nature of being able to save up your dollars and purchase something. So you have to make sure that you’re on top of your game, and that what you’re presenting is of an international level, the artwork and the sound and how the things flow. We all agreed that we wanted that as a band, and I think we achieved it, I think that we’re all happy with the babies and the children, and I think we’ve set afloat a good boat.”


It’s nice to know that both the artist’s intention and the listener’s perception fit together so well!

“And when we recorded it, it was a little bit different this time,” Nicky continues. “We really wanted the grooves, so we played as a rhythm section first, and wanted to make sure that the essence of the groove in the first place, apart from all the horns section and everything, was really something that came through. Any opportunity where we could create something that had a bit of the funk or a bit of the Latin or the reggae or whatever it was that we were touching on at the time, that that came through, that the engine was always good, that it was always danceable, it was always in the pocket and had a nice balance as far as the rhythm was concerned.


“Then we layered the horns.” He continued “When you’re doing ska or things related to ska, and the things upon that thread, there a so many different levels of rhythms that you can attach yourself to, that you can relate to: things that run at half time, things that run at double time, things that move in triplets… we were aware of that and wanted to explore that as much as we could. So we took the time with that, and I think as a result… is a bit more hard hitting. You can put any of those songs next to any songs on the radio at the moment, and they’ll stand up.


“Some of the criticisms of the first album were that it was a bit old-sounding, and that was exactly what we wanted, but here we tried to raise the profile of the band so that [we] can get to a point where lots of people listen to it, and radio is - as much as it’s been diluted in its potential - it’s still one of the major ways to get to people, to get things played. So we wanted an album that was strong, and we took the time to make sure it was a step up, a stronger step to where we wanted to be.”


Another interesting aspect of the new album is the role Nicky plays in the band. He’s obviously a key focal point, but with Sierra Kilo Alpha, he’s not the only focal point, and we get to see and hear from more of the diverse talent that makes up the Melbourne Ska Orchestra.

“I think we wanted to reflect the make-up of the band more with this album,” Nicky explains.

“On a number of different levels, from a singing perspective, we had songs that we tailor made to certain singers, changed the keys and that type of thing, and with the three singers, we did a lot of collaborations with the lyrics and the melodies and everything, so it wasn’t just coming from me, it was a communal effort. And the same with the song writing, we really opened it up and accepted everything that everyone had to offer, whether it was just a little MP3 with a little horn line or a complete song, and one thing I’ve learned is that you have a brains trust if you like, we have a lot of talented people in the band, and it’s… wise to utilise all that goodness, and you end up with a lot of quality songs and quality ideas; you’ve got a lot of things to choose from.


“As a result, we recorded 23 songs, while we only needed 10 or 11. And those songs will see the light of day, as all the songs were valid; all the songs had strength to them. We definitely opened it up this time and made it much more of a communal effort.


“There always has to be a captain,” he continues, “where there’s someone directing or saying yay or nay to ideas, otherwise it’s chaos and you get nothing done, but I think one of the things you need to have a sense that everyone’s contributing to the team, that everyone feels like they’re part of it, and it makes a lot of sense to me as well, so you can really go here’s that team, and when I’m doing my other stuff it’s quite distinct from the orchestra. I think it’s important for the longevity of the band too, to have that open, that everyone has a voice to be heard.”


Like all good things, my conversation with Nicky had to draw to a close.

“We’re really all on the ship and ready to set sail!” Nicky adds.


To finish, in Maltese, sahha!

“Sahha, bye ciao!”


Melbourne Ska Orchestra’s new album Sierra Kilo Alpha is out now. They play the Governor Hindmarsh on Fri May 20.


Luke Balzan


When: 20 May

Where: The Gov


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