Lying down in a leafy enclosure and safely behind bars, one of the lions at Melbourne Zoo is stretching its powerful jaws into a yawn.

The late afternoon sun highlights the sabre curve of its teeth – an intimidating sight to behold – and the audience surrounding its pen gasp and point at the spectacle. It shakes out its mane, pulls itself up onto four huge paws, and begins to roughhouse with one of the others.

It’s almost enough to distract you from the soundtrack to this live showing of a David Attenborough documentary: namely, the brassy whoops and lively beat of the Melbourne Ska Orchestra beginning their set.

Within the first five minutes of the Orchestra’s performance, a guttural snarl starts to punctuate the swell of the horn section.

One of the lions is clearly reacting to the foreign element – big band style ska performed by 26 remarkable musicians – infiltrating into its environment.

Since no one in the surrounding area speaks lion, it’s difficult to tell if the sudden addition to the soundscape is meant to be an endorsement or a warning. One thing is clear enough however – the repeated, dull roars are actually pretty in time with the music. This big cat has rhythm.

Competing with the animals for attention is a risk taken by all of the performers in the Zoo Twilight series, a run of Summer gigs that raise money for various endangered animals (Tonight’s allocated beast is the somewhat unglamorous, but still worthwhile, Lord Howe Island stick insect).

But both the Melbourne Ska Orchestra and their opening act, Mighty Duke and the Lords, give the regular residents at Melbourne Zoo a run for their money as far as entertaining the masses is concerned.

Dressed like cruise chip captains in crisp white slacks and jackets, luau’s cheerfully adorning their mic stands, Mighty Duke and the Lords play a series of double bass, trombone and saxophone arrangements plucked right out of the tropics.

Vocal responsibilities switch between the guitarist and the trombonist: the latter of whom takes to tangoing with his mic stand, as though it were a femme fatale and not a stick made of plastic and metal, during a particularly Argentinian sounding number.

If that was all a little too theatrical for you however, the sight of the percussionist playing the beer bottles towards the back of the stage has a certain calming effect, and it’s hard not to love any band who appreciates the value of a good harmonica solo.

As for the Melbourne Ska Orchestra themselves, after watching frontman Nicky Bomba for five minutes – conducting the band, conducting the audience, riffing like an auctioneer and scatting like a jazz monster – it’s clear the man was born to be in front of an audience.

At his direction, the myriad members of the Orchestra lead the crowd through a history lesson in ska and its roots: Madness is represented of course, along with the Specials, a cover of Minnie Smalls’ 1964 version of ‘My Boy Lollipop’, and Bob Marley and the Wailers’ ‘Simmer Down.’

These international samplings are contrasted against the heaping of local references found in original offerings, like the impossibly upbeat “Lygon Street Meltdown” (a single taken from their long overdue debut album, to be released this year).

Also scattered throughout their performance is solo upon dazzling solo: the Caribbean calm of the steel pan, a clarinettist who holds an unfeasibly high note for an unfeasibly long time, every brass instrument known to man, the keyboardist… each player has their turn in the spotlight.

After the music stops and the picnickers begin to trail through the exit gates, the lions can still be heard over the din of kids running around and chip packets being crunched into picnic hampers. The sound is a reminder of one of the stranger revelations of the evening.

African jungle cats and ska: they’re a match made in heaven.

Get unlimited access to the coverage that shapes our culture.
to Rolling Stone magazine
to Rolling Stone magazine