.Orchestra Gold blends worlds

Oakland band brings Malian treasures to the Bay Area

The Bay Area has long embraced the music of West and Central Africa. Brought here by masters including Nigerian bassist Babá Ken Okulolo, Ghanaian percussionist CK Ladzekpo, and Congolese dancer and drummer Malonga Casquelourd, various traditions have flourished here as hundreds of Western-born musicians absorbed the rhythms and cadences, joining bands and feeding a thriving scene. But until the arrival of Mariam Diakité in 2018 nothing existed here like Orchestra Gold.

A dancer and vocalist from Mali, she fronts a band that fills a singular niche, infusing traditional Bamako grooves with the gritty torque of psychedelic rock. The Oakland band has become the go-to act for touring African stars, opening for Mali guitar scion Vieux Farka Touré, Nigerien Tuareg guitar-shredder Bombino and Mali’s legendary Tuareg rockers, Tinariwen.

Co-founded by guitarist Erich Huffaker, who met Diakité in 2006 in Mali, the band has evolved considerably over the past six years. Two studio albums, both released on vinyl, helped spread the word, but an upcoming record captures the group’s ongoing reinvention.

“The unique thing about our situation is we’re blending worlds in a way that hasn’t happened,” Huffaker said. “There’s the influence of Malian music that Mariam brings. But I grew up listening to 1960s and ’70s rock, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, and all of that ’90s rock when I was a kid. We’re trying to fit between these worlds.”

Usually performing as a quintet or sextet, Orchestra Gold has featured a diverse array of players over the years. The latest version includes baritone saxophonist Patrick Cress, a highly regarded experimental-minded player who gained international attention with his improvisation-laced band Telepathy, and tenor saxophonist Michael Bello, best known as the guiding force behind the Afrobeat band Albino. Bassist Rhonda Kinard, who anchors the indie-soul band Cardboard People, keeps the rhythm section bouncing, while the indispensable drummer Aaron Kierbel shows once again why his presence on the bandstand ensures potent cross-pollination. 

“Erich really likes that analog, dusty, gritty sound, which he achieves with pedals and effects,” said Kierbel, who’s also toured and recorded with Rupa and the April Fishes, the Cosa Nostra Strings, Meklit Hadero and La Misa Negra. As an early member of Orchestra Gold he’s experienced the band’s on-stage transformation, which has picked up momentum in recent months.

“We started out being much more tightly structured, with not a lot of room for improvisation or tangents,” Kierbel said. “We’ve been evolving that part of our sound.”

Orchestra Gold isn’t the only East Bay act steeped in Malian music. Berkeley-based Mamadou Sidibé, a master ngoni player and builder, has forged an array of powerful creative partnerships like the Fula Brothers, his West Africa-meets-Americana project with guitarist Walter Strauss and percussionist Brian Rice. The African diasporic aesthetic sets Orchestra Gold apart. And wherever the music goes it’s anchored by Diakité, who travels around the region teaching Malian dance when she’s not performing.

Educated in Arabic at a madrasa, Diakité grew up speaking Bambara in an ethnically mixed family with a Fulani father and Malinke mother. Her family discouraged her musical ambitions while she came of age, but she still absorbed the songs and acts that defined Bamako’s golden age in the 1970s.

“When we first started, the band was more interested in reviving some of those really cool standards, the big band stuff, but it’s evolved into this thing that’s straddling those worlds,” Huffaker said. “We do the majority of the songwriting together, blending Mariam’s influences and my influences, all that rock but also an array of Black American music, which takes the form of being a lover of Stax and Motown and later funk, and putting it together in new ways.”

While the band’s July 25 show at UC Berkeley’s Botanical Garden quickly sold out, several other opportunities exist for fans to catch OG in the coming weeks. They perform July 26 as part of San Anselmo’s free Live on the Avenue series and Aug. 3 at the Presidio Theatre’s Bliss Festival.

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