A tattoo with the letters “JIEM” sits proudly on Nicky Bomba’s right shoulder. It’s slightly worn from the relentless Australian and Maltese sun, and perhaps also from years of rapid drum and guitar solos with bands like The John Butler Trio, The Melbourne Ska Orchestra, Bustamento, and Bomba. However, the constant philosophical reminder that the ink serves seems to have played an abstract hand.
“Jah In Every Moment” Nicky explains during his lunch interview with Lovin Malta. “Similar to Carpe Diem, but for the moment. Life – it’s all about embracing those moments.”
The world-renowned, multi award-winning musician has savoured the marrow of many moments on stage during his almost life-long career as a recording artist. Though Nicky’s invincible family ties, which are a true testament to his Maltese roots, ensure us that his most cherished moments are those spent surrounded by family.
The Bombastic pride of Paola tells us that he’s back in Malta for his annual visit with friends and family, though this time to celebrate a particularly special event.
“My sister Sandra is having her 50th birthday here, so that’s kinda why we’re all here together right now. She lives in Australia, my son lives in Amsterdam – but we all kind of said, ‘Hey, let’s all get together in this part of the world for the month!’”
Nicky mentions that his sister Danielle (“Mama Kin”) and her husband, John Butler – Bomba’s former bandmate – will also be arriving on the island Thursday night. A one-month Bomba-era John Butler Trio reunion tour through America is coming up soon, so the two will also be rehearsing while holidaying together as a family in Malta and Gozo, Nicky tells us.
“I’ve a big, big family, man!” Bomba says proudly. “Dad had a family of 11, and Mum had a family of 14. All from here. And the family still has a shop in Valletta, on Merchant’s street, called Caruana and Sons. It’s been there since the 40’s. Dad used to work there himself.”
The heavily musical, and very-close Caruana family’s emigration story is an interesting one. Parents, Nicol, and Iris Caruana (daughter of one of Malta’s most famous magician’s – Michael Pace AKA Chris Van Bern) had four children here in Malta – Josephine, Michael, Carmen, and Nicholas the 4th (stage name Nicky Bomba), before moving to Newport, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia when Nicky was just two years old. Once in Newport, Nicky’s two other siblings were born, Sandra and Danielle (“Mama Kin”).
Though the family had moved over 15,000 km from their home-island, Maltese culture was very much kept alive within the hearts of the Caruanas. Their passion both inspired and provided cultural security for their fellow Maltese community members in Melbourne.
Nicky expands: “There was this singing priest here in Malta called Father David [Azzopardi]. He was quite big here back in the day, and when he came to Australia we recorded an album with him. I was about 13 or 14 at the time. The single from the album was called “Tisslija”. That song became number one in Malta for 13 weeks – knocking ABBA off the charts!” Nicky explains, putting both the Caruanas’ roles and his extensive career as a recording artist into perspective. “And the money we made from selling that single, all went to build the Maltese Community Centre in Melbourne.”
“The Maltese spirit – I kind of live with through my music – because it’s very spontaneous, it’s very gregarious, and there’s always that sense of making a party out of nothing!” Bomba tells us. “There’s a Maltese tradition called spritu pront, or ‘quick spirit’, where you make up parts of a song on the spot. It’s also very much a Jamaican tradition. And I love that! I love reggae, and I love Ska, So my music is really a combination of the Maltese spirit, and the Jamaican musical recipe. With those two combined – that’s really who I am.”
A great example of Nicky’s spirtu pront can be seen as he meanders through the kitchens of his sister’s annual Maltese cook-off in Melbourne, where Bomba serenades each chef with a little tune relating to their traditional dish.
“Most audiences love it when you make up stuff! Whether you’re in an intimate environment, or a big 10,000 seater. If you kinda go ‘ah, let’s do something together! Let’s have something just for ourselves!’ Then it’s no longer a performance – it’s a real connection.”
Nicky notes that throughout his career, crowds have ranged from 70,000 at the Montreal Jazz Festival, to very intimite parlour gigs in peoples living rooms, which he still loves doing to this day.
“And that’s what music is all about – to create a sense of unity…It’s like a church in many ways. You want to be taken somewhere.”
Nicky cites a long list of reggae and ska musicians who’ve inspired and influenced him throughout his career – from Toots and the Maytals, Lee Scratch Perry, Justin Hinds & The Dominoes, Bob Marley and The Wailers, and Desmond Dekker – to Sublime, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. However, of all these sounds, which have helped mold his own – it’s the West Indies gospel sound, that deep, moving Church-ey sound that made him realize Reggae-Ska-Funk was his home-genre.
When Lovin Malta asked Nicky about his personal philosophy, Bomba responded:
“I was brought up Catholic – and there are some basic ethics there of compassion, and humanity, and caring for others –but those are universal truths found in many religions… It was once said, ‘Love is the answer, what was the question?’ – that kind of purveys everyday.” Nicky explains. “And Jah in every moment. Jah can be your god – any god. Or it can be when you’re living life to the absolute fullest, and you’re really being in that moment.”
“But also, I believe that we all have goals inside us. And we have to keep that goal, and use that goal to make our choices, and really know ourselves. Coming to Malta every year gives me that sense of knowing myself even more – because I know where my roots are.”
Nicky emphasizes the importance of self-sufficiency in his life, and how that eventually factored into his decision to leave The John Butler Trio to pursue his 25-member strong ‘Cruise Ship of Funk’, The Melbourne Ska Orchestra, and numerically scaled-down sibling-of-sound, Bustamento, as well as Bomba, and solo acts.
“Working with John [Butler] was fantastic, but I also had my own boat. And I was feeling very guilty for leaving my songs and other projects behind. As enjoyable as it was, and as luxurious as it was – I had other things that I needed to do. I had my garden to tend, and my boat to take care of to go on those journeys.” Nicky explains.
“When Melbourne Ska Orchestra started to really kick into gear, John came to see us play. And he knows me,” Nicky laughs. “I mean, we’re brothers like – we just looked at each other after the show, and he just kind of said ‘Yeah, it’s time …you really need to do this.’ So it was all natural. And it’s great. Now I can go back and do my month with him touring America, and still return and tend to my own musical boat.”
In 2014, just a year after Nicky left the John Butler Trio, both Bomba’s Melbourne Ska Orchestra and The John Butler Trio were nominated for “Best Australian Live Act” in the ARIA awards.
“Yeah, it was hilarious – it was great! When you have the real proper love for your fellow musician, you wish them the best. So it was really great that we were both in there!” Nicky laughs. “The same year, John Butler Trio’s album Flesh and Blood won the award, which I played on. But at the actual awards, I was performing for the Melbourne Ska Orchestra. So when they went to accept the award, they were like ‘Eh? Nicky’s around here somewhere…’ And I was backstage getting ready for my own gig – so I stuck my head out and said ‘Emm, hi!’” Bomba laughs, reflecting on the ambivalent, yet validating, transition period.
“There’s a lot of love there. If there’s any rivalry or competition, then it’s a healthy, Lennon/McCarthy type of thing. Like, ‘Hey, I just did this’ – ‘Ah, fuck that’s great! Here check this out, I did this’ – ‘Brilliant, no – that’s great!’.” He grins. “Jealousy and animosity…you’ve give all of that up when you’re a kid. We just wish each other the best, and give each other advice.”
In 2016, Nicky Bomba and The Melbourne Ska Orchestra returned to the ARIA awards, winning ‘Best World Music Album’ for Sierra Kilo Alpha proving, (to quote the Butler Trio tune) Life’s not about what’s better than…
The Melbourne Ska Orchestra recently released an extended version of their award-winning album “Sierra Kilo Alpha”, entitled “Saturn Return” – not on CD, not on vinyl, but on…a spaceship.
“We didn’t actually release it on CD – it’s on a USB that looks like a spaceship! You’ve got the original S.K.A. album with an additional 12 songs that didn’t make the initial cut, a dossier on every member of the band, film clips, song lyrics, and strange little facts about the solar system.”
It’s safe to say that Nicky Bomba is a true Maltese legend – in any band, boat, or spaceship. Thank you for the tunes Nicky!
Be sure to check out Nicky Bomba & the Family Band (with special guests) at Zion Reggae Bar in Marsascala on Friday, August 4th.