Even before the pandemic, Orchestra Gold’s music traced an extraordinary journey.
Founded about five years ago, the Oakland combo was designed around the dynamic Malian vocalist and dancer Mariam Diakité, who carved out a career by defying her strictly religious father and (now ex) husband to pursue her love of music and movement.
As part of the vibrant cultural scene in Bamako, the capital of the huge, landlocked West African nation, she spent 15 years with the leading dance group, Troupe Sewa, and performed with storied Malian artists such as guitar legend Djelimady Tounkara and superstar vocalist Salif Keita. Earning notice as a featured performer in Ramata Diakité’s 2009 hit single “Sigui (Water Buffalo)” she went on to represent traditional Wassoulou music in Aja Salvatore’s 2011 documentary Mali: Life is Hard, Music is Good.
Moving to Oakland in 2018 on an artist visa, she reconnected with Oakland multi-instrumentalist Erich Huffaker—a friend and musical compatriot from his years working for an NGO in Bamako—which led to the birth of Orchestra Gold. The band was a rapidly rising force on the Bay Area music scene and on the cusp of releasing a debut album when the pandemic derailed the plans. In the three years since, Orchestra Gold’s music has continued to evolve, embracing psychedelic rock and funk.
Celebrating the release of a new album, Medicine, this Friday at the Bandcamp store at 1901 Broadway in downtown Oakland, the group sees its musical mission as spreading healing through the incantatory grooves that undergird the new songs.
“We had a big queue of things and everything shifted,” Huffaker told The Oaklandside on a recent video call with Diakité. “The silver lining came to be apparent, and the idea of music as the medicine we need started to ring true for us. In a larger sense that’s been the instinctual draw from the beginning. Somehow the music became a medium for holding and releasing all that emotion.”
The version of the band performing at Bandcamp won’t be the same as the more expansive ensemble appearing on Medicine. The stripped-down group includes tenor saxophonist Luis Andrade, La Misa Negra bassist Yousef Javier, Malian percussionist Moussa Camara, and drummer Aaron Kierbel, a capaciously resourceful musician who also performs and records with Rupa and the April Fishes and the Cosa Nostra Strings (a Jazz Mafia spinoff).
Diakité is the band’s creative source. Possessing a wellspring of traditional rhythms and melodies, she sparks new pieces by “coming up with a vocal line,” she said, speaking in Bambara with Huffaker translating. “A lot of the pieces begin with me having a vocal melody and we use that to inspire the rest of the song.”
“The way Luis and ‘Madama’ play off of each other is really cool,” said Huffaker, using Diakité’s nickname. “There’s a thing in a lot of West African music, the call and response between vocals and horns, and Luis and Madama have their own version of that. They talk to each other in this other language that I don’t totally understand.”
“Luis knows exactly what the song needs to sound good,” added Diakité.
Educated in Arabic at a madrassa, Diakité grew up in an ethnically mixed family with a Fulani father and Malinke mother. She married young and quickly found that her husband didn’t intend to let her continue performing, a situation some female vocalists in Mali avoid by making a point of only marrying other musicians. Otherwise, women often face severe pressure from their fathers and husbands. “Some are understanding and will let you do music, but some are jealous and they won’t,” she said.
She and Huffaker first met in 2006 when he was working in Mali with Jigi, a small French NGO, and the two became good friends over Huffaker’s three years there. Huffaker grew up in Riverside, CA, in a sprawling family with maternal roots in Egypt, and while he was widely exposed to traditional and popular Egyptian culture, as a teenager Huffaker found himself drawn to the music of West Africa.
He and Diakité stayed in touch when he returned to California after his stint in Mali, even when the northern half of the country was overrun by radical Islamists who destroyed instruments and persecuted musicians during the 2012 civil war. Fighting was still simmering when Huffaker returned to Bamako in 2014, a visit that led him to start thinking about building a band around Diakité.
Initially, Orchestra Gold was largely defined by the surging horn-driven sound that made the West African nation a creative cauldron in the years following independence from France in 1960. Incorporating elements of acid rock, the group has become known for high-energy performances.
Diakité also gained a following by offering West African dance classes, though she’s still not as busy as she was pre-COVID.
These days, she can sometimes be found putting in shifts at Dioma’s Senegalese Hair Braiding Salon near Lake Merritt. She’s connected with some other West African musicians in the East Bay, “but everyone has to work to survive,” she said. “Everyone’s very busy. It’s hard to get enough time to invest in something.”
The tension between material scarcity and creative abundance runs through Orchestra Gold, with a cadre of devoted players expanding the music in multifarious directions. What started as an homage to Bamako’s golden age of the 1970s has taken on a decidedly Oakland tinge.
When we started, the focus was on singing these really old songs,” Huffaker said. “That’s still an influence, but our focus now is coming together to find what’s uniquely us, what is the sound of us now. That gives us a lot more opportunity to tap into other people’s voices, and we’re less limited by a particular musician’s knowledge of Mali. The possibilities are limitless.”