Formed in 2003 the Melbourne Ska Orchestra is an orchestra with a difference. Comprising up to 36 members this juggernaut contains some of Australia’s finest musicians and performers. The band can perform with as little as 18 members and as many as 36. Lead and directed by the energetic and charismatic Nicky Bomba (John Butler Trio, Bomba, Bustamento), they are a force to be reckoned with.
The bands debut self-titled release resulted in sell out national shows, multiple major festival appearances, three international tours and a host of awards and nominations. The new album Sierra-Kilo-Alpha, was released on April 22, 2016. Showcasing a new trajectory sonically, it respects the roots of the genre retransmitting 2Tone signals while introducing new hybrids that are fresh and exciting.
Melbourne Ska Orchestra’s live performance is explosive and infectious. Their unique take on the genre of Ska has wowed audiences all over the world. From Montreal to New York, Istanbul to London and with the approval of Reggae and Ska pioneers like Stranger Cole, Owen Gray, Carlos Malcolm, Ranking Roger and Neville Staples, to name a few, the Melbourne Ska Orchestra is resonating with audiences worldwide – young and old.
Album Biography Sierra-Kilo-Alpha
Some Old History
In 1963, a Jamaican teenager named Millie Small released a version of Robert Spencer’s (The Cadillacs) song, ‘My Boy Lollipop’, produced by legendary guitarist Ernest Ranglin.
Recorded in a shuffle/bluebeat style, the song became a huge hit, credited today with being the first commercially successful ska tune. It not only launched the careers of Ranglin and Small, along with the reputation of Island Records, but it essentially introduced the entire world to a genre previously not heard outside of Jamaica – this was the birth of ska on a large scale.
Some Not As Old History
Cut to forty years later – a group of Melbourne musicians get together to celebrate four decades of ska, and from this wildly successful one-off gig, something else is born: the Melbourne Ska Orchestra, Australia’s own purveyor of this powerful and intoxicating brand of music.
“Ska was the soundtrack of a new chapter in Jamaican History. They’d just got their independence and ska represented hope. Hope and excitement and freshness,” says MSO conductor Nicky Bomba. “And that’s the essence of our musical philosophy – mixed with a good cup of fun and a fly by the seat of your pants attitude.”
The MSO was, initially, a once-a-year side-project, but around 2009 became more of a focus. A few years later, as they celebrated their own 10th birthday, the group (which ranges in number from around 17 to 34, 25 being the ideal number of players) released their eponymous debut, a cut which hit it big in Australia, leading to a slew of triumphant overseas touring in 2014 and a swag of awards.
History In The Making
So a decade or so to make their debut, but only three years to follow up – 2016 sees the release of the Orchestra’s second album, Sierra-Kilo-Alpha, and it picks up where they left off, taking this old music and adding to it with aplomb.
“[With the first album], the important thing for us was to find what we were offering to the ska genre,” Bomba explains. “It’d be very easy for us to be a generic ska band and copy a sound… but we made a concerted effort, we had a vision, to offer something new. Melbourne has an amazing multi-cultural mix, we’ve all been exposed to this, and as a result, the music that comes from that inter-weaves; the concept was to create hybrids – a lot of us are fans of funk, Ethiopics, African rhythms and jazz.”
“So that was our plan for this new album, to fine-tune that even more,” he goes on. “And also, to make the band sound even more relevant. We wanted to make the Orchestra not just big and wide, but also punchy to the point where we become a rhythmic force, not just a studio soundscape.”
Recorded at both the ABC and Freeburgh Station studios in Melbourne in the winter of 2015 (“At one point we thought we saw snow out the window but it was just the foam from the window cleaners above,” Bomba laughs), and engineered by honorary member Robin Mai, Sierra-Kilo-Alpha throbs with the hope, excitement and freshness Bomba mentioned earlier.
A collaborative effort, the album came together via input from as many members who wanted to contribute. “Yeah, it was opened up big time,” Bomba confirms, “and many contributed ideas. When it hit around twenty-three, we switched into arrangement mode and started having fun with the songs, giving them some love. The recording sessions were a spaceship blast into the skatasphere. So much fun and family. There’s a lot of passion for music in the band.”
This comes across in spades – from the urgency of opener ‘Escher’; the funk-laden groove of ‘Funkchunk!’; the twisting, turning reggae-esque ‘Nothing In The Well’; the cosmic nature of ‘Satellite’ – this feeling of love for the music seeps from every note, from every bar, from every tune.
“I’m pretty proud of where we are with this album,” enthuses Bomba. “There’s a presence and punchiness to it that makes us smile. And there are some strong cross-overs that play a lot with dynamics, it’s almost like a film playing out,
lot’s of drama, highs and lows, twists and turns.
“To me, it’s mature songwriting, yet still having that element of sounding fresh, and that’s always a hard thing to do – I think we accepted the mission and delivered.”
Sierra-Kilo-Alpha is the Melbourne Ska Orchestra’s own history – a nod to the past with an eye firmly on the future, dangerous and free, just how it’s supposed to be.
Australian Festival Performances
- WOMAD, SA 2012
- Byron Bay Bluesfest, NSW 2011, 2012, 2013 & 2015
- Golden Plains Festival, VIC
- Caloundra Festival, QLD
- Queenscliff Festival, VIC
- AWME (Australiasian World Music Expo), VIC 2013 & 2014
- Fremantle Arts Centre New Years Day Concert, WA 2013/li>
- Bigsound, Brisbane QLD 2013
- City of Palmerston Festival, VIC 2014
- Summer of Soul Festival, Mossvale VIC 2015 & 2016
- Australia Day Festival Whittlesea, Melbourne VIC 2015
- Falls Festival, Lorne, VIC 2015
- Australia Day at The Rocks, Sydney NSW 2016
International Festival Performances
- WOMAD, New Zealand 2013
- Glastonbury, United Kingdom 2014
- Montreal Jazz Festival, Canada 2014
- Festival d’ete de Quebec, Canada 2014
- Dundas Square Toronto, Canada 2014
- Northern Lights Festival, Boreal Ontario Canada 2014, 2015
- Beaches Jazz Festival, Toronto Canada 2015
- Vacouver Folk Festival, Canada 2015
- Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, California US 2015
- The Forge, Camden London UK – SOLD OUT 2014
- The Garage, London 2015
- The Observatory, Orange County US, 2015
- BB Kings Blues Bar & Grill, New York US 2015