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 ARIA-nominated 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.
Sound engineer Robin Mai (John Butler Trio, Augie March), Nicky’s long time partner in sound crime, was a vital part of the process, experimenting with mic placement until the sweet spot became apparent. “We always knew” says Robin “that the secret to getting it right was capturing the harmonic energy in the room when the instruments combined. That was our first port of call when mixing the album too”. The pair were subsequently ARIA nominated in ‘Engineer of the Year’ category for their efforts on the album.