University of Melbourne Magazine

Mamma Mia, here we go again – the music that refuses to die

  • Michael Ingvarson (BEd(Sec) 1993) has played the role of Benny in an ABBA tribute band, BABBA, for the past 22 years. He recalls how his musical journey began.


    BABBA today (from left): James McDonald, Susannah Gidley (BA 2013, BMus 2013), Jacqueline Hamilton and Michael Ingvarson.

    BABBA’s long musical journey began with a crush. It really was that simple. Singer Kathy Mikkelsen had the hots for the owner of the Royal Derby Hotel and thought he might be impressed if he heard her sing with her friend, Gabriella Favretto, in his hotel’s ‘Battle of the Bands’. ­

    The hotel manager then thought it would be a good idea to try an ABBA-style band at the Fitzroy pub on a Thursday night. Always up for a challenge, the girls sang Fernando in harmony for him, and so began the story of BABBA. ­

    This was in the early ‘90s and though the legendary ABBA had not performed since 1982, their music refused to die. Who could ever really forget classics like Waterloo, Dancing Queen, Mamma Mia and One of Us?

    I had met Kathy while we were both studying music at Melbourne University, but was still a bit surprised when she invited me to play Benny. I went to the pub for an audition and had my own crush experience when I met the gorgeous Gabriella, who played Frida.

    James Macdonald, who had also been performing in the Battle of the Bands, was recruited as Bjorn. Our robust rhythm section was filled with Kim May and Paul Edsall (BMusPerf 1993).

    We had our first gig on December 2, 1994, when we played for an audience of 450. We were terrified and thrilled at the same time. Within a couple of years, we were performing 180 shows a year. Now, 22 years on, we have crossed the 3000-gig mark.

    I loved music but never really imagined making a career out of it. I had studied Music and Drama at the University of Melbourne and in 1994, I began teaching the subjects at a western suburbs school.

    It was my first teaching job and, to put it mildly, it wasn’t exactly a resounding success. After one semester, I began to look for other ways to make a living from music. BABBA was the passport to my new life. ­

    “People often ask if we ever tire of playing the same music. We don’t, and the reason is that these are well-crafted songs with lovely melodies . . .”

    The group members have changed over the years, but we have now played together for twice as long as ABBA. ­

    There are many highlights, such as performing to 45,000 at Etihad Stadium for the closing of the Masters Games, touring Asia on seven occasions, and playing at the Melbourne Zoo Twilight concerts. ­

    These days we play on cruise ships several times a year, and we are now preparing for a massive gig with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, performing our whole show with them in front of 20,000 people. Indeed, we’ve also loved our University of Melbourne courtyard gigs. Always such an appreciative audience!

    People often ask if we ever tire of playing the same music. We don’t, and the reason is that these are well-crafted songs with lovely melodies and song structures. ­They’re hugely satisfying to play. ­

    The arrangements, vocally and instrumentally, are complicated and unique – so we are always musically refining our performances. ­ The audiences, too, play their part. It’s fun and joyful to watch the faces of people as the music flicks a switch and triggers happy memories.

    My other great passion in life has been composing, recording and producing music. I found the joy in music as a boy of 14 when I began improvising on the piano. Soon I was doing MIDI sequencing with early Macs and samplers, composing music for a film and producing and co-writing music for singers and songwriters. My University course gave me the basics for all that followed it.

    Since 2003, I have owned a professional music production studio in Canterbury called Big Hand Productions. Music is very much a family affair. Gabriella and I have been together since pretty soon after my BABBA audition. We now have three children, all involved in music.

    Music has been good to us because, as ABBA sang long before we did, ‘Without a song and a dance what are we?’