Nicky Bomba

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Nicky Bomba

Nicky Bomba scatters recording devices around his home the way other people scatterreading glasses.

“The studio is my favourite place to be, creating, bringing something to life,” Bomba says. “Writing is what I do constantly and my greatest fear is coming up with a good song and then not remembering it. That’s why I have to have something near so I can always plant that seed.”

That’s a lot of seeds. Bomba’s new album Food & Shelter is just his second solo album but the 24th of his career.

He has been a blazing creative spark in Australian music for decades: drummer in the John Butler Trio on classic albums Sunrise Over Sea, April Uprising and Flesh & Blood; the driving force behind Melbourne Ska Orchestra, the giant brass collective that grew from a one-off gig in Melbourne to play stages from Bluesfest to Glastonbury and win ARIAs for best world music album in 2016 and 2019. He is a multi-instrumentalist, producer and songwriter who has played in bands from Bomba to Bustamento and worked with greats like Joe Camilleri (their 2005 album Limestone) and Ross Hannaford (the Bomba-produced 1996 album Ross Hannaford Trio is reissued on Bomba’s label Transmitter Records).

Food & Shelter finds those seeds in fertile ground, drawing on all Bomba’s experience exploring styles from reggae to jazz, funk and ethnic folk to create music with a bold,contemporary voice. As the title suggests, the album is about going back to basics on the path to discovery.

Self-sufficiency has long been one of Bomba’s personal goals. That’s why he taught himself the art of recording in the first place, to keep musical control at his fingertips. If it ever came to a point where a musician couldn’t even be in a room with musical collaborators – a time where we were all locked down in our homes for an extended period, for example – there would still be a way forward. Food & Shelter is the first album he has made where he plays, writes and sings every note, all recorded in the studio at his home in the beautiful mountain country of north-eastern Victoria.

Bomba says: “Some say lockdown is the time when introverts are at their best and I am one of those people. This was the perfect time for me to stay home, get motivated, be disciplined. The song Opportunity is about just that. This was the chance to make it happen.”

The food and shelter theme recurs through the album: “Food equals the fuel that ignites us physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, to meet the challenges of modern life. Shelter is the safe house, the place of solace, friendship, love, getting back to nature, nurturing.”

Food & Shelter might have been recorded close to home but it ranges far and wide, from the intricate rhythmic pulse of Home to the full-tilt funk riffs and mysterious, otherworldly violin of Rise of the New Shango. There is disgust at Trump-ian chest-beating in the dub reggae-fired Lemonade, and Bubble Time is a song everyone can relate to in 2021.

Malibu began life as a song intended for Melbourne Ska Orchestra and their 2019 project of releasing a song each Friday for a year, eventually collected on One Year of Ska.

“When I brought the song to the orchestra they said, that’s 53! I had miscounted so Istripped it right back and it felt like a great way to begin working on this album, an upbeat song about simpler times while reflecting on what’s going on now.

“I knew I needed a clean delineation from everything I had done before, with my jazz band Banana Oil, with my calypso/mento band Bustamento, with Melbourne Ska Orchestra, with Bomba, so there would be no horns for a start. There is a lot of positive energy in the music but I wasn’t scared of going into the darkness in the lyrics either. You have to welcome the pain sometimes. There are no hills without the valleys.”

Don’t Waste a Minute is a bouncy tune that came from a near-death experience, looking the wrong way in Amsterdam when a stranger pulled him back from a passing tram. Why Worry is another powerful affirmation to make the most of it. Bomba says: “I’m alive on this planet hurtling through the universe, I’m only here for a blink in time. What do you do with that blink?”

Bomba was born in Malta and his family moved to Melbourne when he was a baby. In 2007 he helped his father Nicol Caruana make an album of folk songs, Malta. In 2020 they were able to spend precious time together before his father passed away. The healing power of music is a vital element in the making of Food & Shelter and songs like Changels, which refers to the guiding spirits Bomba feels close to him in times of change and pain.

“The song relates to my dad, conversing with him last year and somehow even more nowsince his passing. Change is the only constant in life and how we move through it teaches us the biggest lessons. 

“You don’t have to keep everything inside; it needs to come out somehow. It might be playing a guitar and screaming at the top of your lungs or writing songs and making a record. Creating something, that’s what always works for me.”

Written by Noel Mengel