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Melbourne Ska Orchestra

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Sunday 30 October 2016

Melbourne Ska Orchestra are a ska band formed in 1993 in Melbourne, Australia. The group has up to 34 members, and is led by bandleader Nicky Bomba.

In 2003, the time was right. A world-record attempt to have the largest number of horn players on stage at the same time playing the ska-skank saw a slew of musicians take the stage at St Kilda's Gershwin Room, and although nobody remembered to check if the record had actually been set, from this sold-out performance the Melbourne Ska Orchestra was born. Assembled from some of Australia's preeminent names in Ska and Reggae and fronted by inimitable frontman Nicky Bomba (Bomba, Bustamento, John Butler Trio), the soaring popularity of the band is seeing the MSO fast becoming a fixture of Australia's musical landscape.

Now, after more than a decade of sold-out shows and electrifying festival appearances the MSO has come together to produce a different kind of record. Their self-titled debut album showcases the versatility of a genre that has influenced some of the most venerated names in music, from Bob Marley to Gwen Stefani, as well as demonstrating a uniquely Australian vision of the exuberance and freewheeling colour of contemporary Ska.

“I’ve always thought Ska was one of the most universal forms of music,” reflects bandleader Nicky Bomba, “I’d always had it in the back of my mind that when people heard it they would be instantly converted, but what I didn’t expect – like our first Bluesfest gig, for example – was that by the time the second gig came around word of mouth had really spread, and the audience was just massive, people dancing as far as you could see. I think the combination of the joy you get from the music and the activity that happens on stage – having thirty people on stage at once is its own wonderful, uncontrollable mayhem – is quite a spectacle.”

With this combination of on-stage energy, the support from a rapidly swelling fan-base and the encouragement from a record company, studio time was booked and the first steps towards recording an album were underway. Given the MSO is already composed of some of the finest Ska and Reggae musicians in the country, finding the right talent for such an undertaking was never a problem. How to capture that live atmosphere, however – that raw feel-it-in-your-bones energy – was the next concern, and it was solved simply by allowing a group of people united by their love of performing to sit down and brainstorm until the sound was right.

The songs on the album are a mixture of original Bomba compositions and 2 collective ThinkTank sessions organised specifically for the recording. Nicky elaborates even further on the importance of each song being a unique-yet-related story; “I see each song as connected by the Ska thread, but has it's own flavour. It was important that we were offering something new to the form so we experimented with hybrids to make our stamp. I wanted different elements, for each to have its own energy, and when you're working with an entire orchestra there are so many elements you are able to play with, so many more possibilities. For instance, Lygon Street Meltdown is very much about the old Melbourne underbelly, about gangland vendettas and murder on the streets, and so that infuses its character. It starts with what's almost a funeral march, and then suddenly kicks off as the action erupts.”

Just as each song is woven with the same ska-thread, so too are vocals shared between tracks, perhaps best represented by the ensemble piece, The Diplomat. “I wanted everyone to get the chance to shine, “ Nicky emphasises, “We wanted to have a varied record, and part of that was finding whoever's voice was best suited to a particular song. There's a song called Time to Wake Up with Pat and I doing a duet, and you can't tell who is who half of the time. Collaborating with such seasoned musicians you find that you start getting this depth, this atmosphere, this human element where unexpected things are popping out left, right and centre, much like the rawness of everyday life. We really wanted to draw that human element out for this album. It’s not two-dimensional, there are a lot of variants. I think that's a beautiful thing. ”

This self titled debut album from the Melbourne Ska Orchestra is the culmination of years of passion and performance from one of the most energetic and inspired ensembles currently winning over audiences right across the country. This is music at its most entertaining; vibrant, surprising, and with a beat to shame the Devil. This is Ska.

Melbourne Ska Orchestra are set to play at the sold out Age Music Victoria Awards After Party on November 16. Joining them on the bill are CAMP COPE and Tash Sultana.

Listen back to Blue Juice for a live set from Melbourne Ska Orchestra. Studio 5 Live is proudly brought to you by PBS.

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