North East Ska Jazz Orchestra: Jamaican and Caribbean rhythm mixed with the swing big band style

It was one of the largest teams on stage of Freedom Sounds Festival 2018. The North East Ska Jazz Orchestra consists of up to twenty people! They have been playing together since 2012, and set themselves a goal to rebuild the Italian ska scene. In March they released a new, self-titled album, which I talked about with the bassist of the band, Roberto Amadeo, last year.

We talked a while in the hotel parking lot, hiding from the wind behind one of the vans. I will never know whether it was the one intended for good or for bad musicians, but from what I remember, it was quite tidy.

Magdalena Miszewska: It looks like things are going good for North East Ska Jazz Orchestra and I think that it began around 2016, right? The time you played a big tour around Europe.

Roberto Amadeo: Yeah, in 2016 we did our first big tour, all over Europe. Starting from Rototom Sunsplash in Benicasim, then Bilbao in France. For us it was the beggining of real tours and real shows. But before we published some videos on YouTube, an album and an EP. This year we’re going to evolve. We are recording and writing new music. Next year we are going to publish a new album with only original songs, no covers. We want to show our real identity and we hope to get some good feedback and likes from our fans and audience. We already recorded a few tunes, the half of the album, in January. We are going to record the second part in June and we are completing the arrangements of the whole album. We hope to publish it until the end of March of 2019. Meanwhile we’re going to publish some content – digital singles and another seven inch vinyl, a dub version by Victor Rice who’s also playing at Freedom Sounds today. We’re going to do a lot of stuff before the album release.

MM: And how do you work on the tunes? You’re a really big band, 18 or 19 people..

RA: 19 people. We perform with 18 people during tours, but in the studio we usually go with more people, 20 or 21. With a one or two brass more and with a percussion set that we usually don’t have on tour.

MM: I’ve read that when you were recording your first album you were all in the studio at the same moment, right? And are you doing the same thing with the new album?

RA: Yeah, we like to record all together, but on separate tracks. We like to have this energy in the studio. The first studio we recorded in was in Capodistria (Koper) in Slovenia and now we’re going to record near Venice. It’s a vintage studio too.

MM: And is the whole band involved in songwriting?

RA: At first someone gives the idea of a song. Then Max, the trombone player, or Filippo, the guitarist, arrange the song. Then we start to rehearse with the rhythm section plus the singers and some brass, one or two. Then, when the structure of the song is almost ready, we go with the whole band to rehearse and to fix the song. For example for the album we prepare four or five songs at a time and we rehearse this set. In two or three days we are ready to record. To prepare the show for the tour we meet for two or three days of rehearsing before the tour and then we go.

MM: Okay, so we have things to look out for in 2019. But now I’d like you to take a step in the past. The latest thing you recorded is the seven inch with Freddie Reiter (NYSJE) and David Hillyard (The Slackers). How did you meet those guys?

RA: We met New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble and The Slackers in our hometown in Italy. And then Max, our trombone player, went on tour with The NYSJE during Christmas period. Then they offered us the collaboration and we arranged a song written by Fred Reiter for The NYSJE, “Prime Suspect” and the original tune by David Hillyard, “Disco’s Revenge”. We recorded in our studio, then we send the tracks to them and they recorded in their studio in New York. We didn’t record together, but the music is still very cool. We also had a featuring with Fred Reiter in a show in Trieste last year, in December. And we hope to do the same thing with David Hillyard when The Slackers will come to Italy. It’s difficult, but we hope it’ll happen.

MM: Since we’re talking about the past, I would like you to go back to 2012 when the band was formed. How was the ska and reggae scene then in Italy? You said earlier that it was a good time for a ska orchestra to be formed.

RA: Mostly for reggae. Reggae is great in Italy, ska less. But we tried to put together a lot of brass and the rhythm section. To mix a Jamaican and Carribean rhythm with the swing big band style. I think almost all of us are involved in other projects. It’s very difficult but it would be even more difficult to have a steady group, same musician every time. It’s not possible. We prefer to have some regular musicians, like the drum player or the bass player or the singers. But often we have to substitute some brass or guitar players.

MM: You said that it wasn’t such a good time for ska music in Italy, but you managed to fund your album with crowd funding. I guess that people wanted to listen to this kind of music.

RA: Yeah, we believe that it’s possible to recreate the ska scene in Italy. There’s a lot of musicians who are trying and are working hard for this. Mr. T-Bone, Olly Riva with his new project The Magnetics or other musicians and their friends in Rome, in the center or south of Italy.

MM: So maybe the good times are coming for the ska scene in Italy.

PA: Yeah. We hope so.

MM: You’re also involved in a project “Time for Africa”. Could you tell me something more about it?

RA: We’re collaborating with the association from Udine who works a lot with people living in Africa. They produced our first EP – four songs, two with Mr. T-Bone. We also made our first video, “Take Five”, together. All the money we get from selling this EP goes to “Time for Africa”. On this tour we are trying to speak about Nelson Mandela, because this year marks the 100th anniversary of his birth. We are trying to share this knowledge not only through the music but also through speaking about this.

MM: And coming back to music and the tour life. You travel as an 18 piece band, you travel by two cars. How’s the tour life for you? You said that you divided yourselves and one car is for good musicians and the other one for bad.

RA: Sometimes it’s difficult, because for example tonight we had a twelve hour trip from Italy. We had to take turns driving. We always finish the tour very tired and need a week off, doing nothing.

MM: And what’s the thing with good musicians and bad musicians in separate cars? Do you divide them according to their skills or behavior?

RA: I cannot tell you. But touring together is very important for us, because we collect the energy and strengthen the ties within the group. We’re not like a band who is rehearsing every week or two days a week. We meet to rehearse or to do something one or two times a month. So when we can stay together in the van, it’s a great thing for us.

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