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Interview: Orchestra Gold - Treefort Fest Pick of the Day

24 September 2021

So, a Bay Area real estate consultant and a professional singer and dancer from Mali walk into a bar …

That isn’t the setup to an outlandish joke — it’s actually a brief history of how soul/funk/folk/psych combo Orchestra Gold came to be. Malian singer and dancer Mariam Diakité met lifelong guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Erich Huffaker at a wedding in Diakité’s homeland about 15 years ago, and after subsequently running into each other multiple times at bars, they bonded over their mutual love for old-school folkloric music from Mali.

To be more descriptive about that genre of music, Orchestra Gold calls it “horn-driven rhythmic ‘orchestra’ music from ’70s-era Mali, West Africa, with a contemporary twist: analog psych-rock fused with Malian folklore.”

Precisely identifying and describing that sound is of critical importance to Orchestra Gold. Huffaker says his and Diakité’s main objective isn’t to become rock stars per se; they are driven by a sense of duty to introduce and educate music lovers everywhere about that special aforementioned sound, to ensure it finally gets greater exposure.

The Big Takeover recently interviewed Diakité and Huffaker via Skype to talk about playing Treefort (their performance is set for the Basque Center tonight at 10:30 p.m.), how their lifestyles have changed during the pandemic and where to find the best mint chocolate chip ice cream in Boise.

[Note: Huffaker translated some questions for and answers from Diakité, who speaks French and Bambara, during the interview.]

Hey guys. So, Orchestra Gold’s origin story is worlds apart, so to speak, from the way most bands form. More often than not, musicians meet through mutual friends — usually in the same city — and decide after jamming together that they could form a cohesive band. But that’s not exactly how Orchestra Gold came about, is it?

MARIAM DIAKITÉ: [She laughs.] No, not exactly. I met Erich in Mali [at a wedding in 2006]. Then we kept running into each other at parties. Erich liked Mali music so much, we decided to start working together. When we realized we both truly loved the music we were making, we decided to form the band.

What brought you to Mali, Erich?

ERICH HUFFAKER: In 2005, I landed in Bamako, Mali, to start an internship I had working with an NGO. I studied drumming and going to parties, and Mariam was a frequent performer at them. I stayed in Mali for three years, during which we slowly started working on music together. Later, I’d work in Oakland to put together the arrangements for demos that Mariam and I had created together.

Bringing the band together was pretty easy, actually. Everything came together in our first year. We found a lot of people in Oakland who wanted to play the same style of music that we did. The hardest part of being in a band for us, so far, was getting a visa. There was a pivotal moment in 2016 when we decided we wanted to pursue this band, but it took two years of trial and error to get a visa, thanks to the Trump Era.

DIAKITÉ: We talked about the challenges of getting a visa, but I told myself, “If God wills it, it will happen.”

Can either of you elaborate on that “pivotal moment” a bit?

DIAKITÉ: It happened when we went to my house and played “Lemuru” [which they issued as a single in 2020]. In that moment, I knew our partnership was meant to be. If you find someone who truly loves loves Mali music, it’s likely they’re going to have the courage to bring it forward.

HUFFAKER: I always felt like I knew and trusted Mariam. Right after we started working on music together, we were making each other laugh.

Orchestra Gold issued two EPs in April 2019 and a third one the following November. Why does right now feel like the best time to introduce your music to wider audiences?

DIAKITÉ: Well, we want this to be the beginning. We want to expose our music to a lot of people and tour a lot as well.

You were slated to perform at Treefort last year. Were you bummed the fest was postponed?

DIAKITÉ: It put us behind a lot, not just the Treefort postponement but a lot of other plans we had for 2020 …

HUFFAKER: … But the lockdowns also gave us a lot of opportunities. We spent the time writing and working out finances. Mariam launched an online school intended to build a dance group. Also, a couple of labels approached us with record deal offers.

Were you tempted to sign, especially because you weren’t able to make money touring?

HUFFAKER: We wanted to go our own way [and didn’t want to give up] the rights to our music. We already have all the tools right now that a label would use for us: digital marketing, a presence on Facebook. It’s a bit harder these days to see the value in a normal record deal.

What excites you most about playing Treefort?

HUFFAKER: I played Treefort in 2016 with another band, La Misa Negra [also Oakland-based]. The festival was so much fun, so well-organized, and everyone was so nice. I bought my favorite pair of boots at a thrift store in Boise!

Are you concerned about playing a music festival during a COVID surge?

DIAKITÉ: I am not worried about the virus. If God decides you’re going to get sick, you’re going to get sick wherever you go. I’m very excited to go to Boise.

Can the crowd at your show expect to hear a good deal of new music, perhaps even songs from your long-awaited debut album?

HUFFAKER: The LP is still in the beginning stages of planning. We’re hoping to get it out late this year or maybe early next year. The first full-length will have all the material we’ve made till now, but we also might have a limited-edition version with a couple more songs. We’ll probably be funding the record ourselves, although we raised $5,000 to $6,000 at a fundraiser we did earlier this year.

We’re also working on writing grant proposals so that we could help with racial justice in West African drumming and dancing circles. White supremacy has even invaded that space too, and there’s a lot of work to be done.

Mariam, what excites you most about visiting Boise?

DIAKITÉ: I like to get mint chocolate chip ice cream wherever I visit. Do you have any recommendations?

The STIL offers the best ice cream in town, but unfortunately they’re not serving mint chocolate chip at the moment. So I’d recommend the newly opened Stella, instead.

HUFFAKER: That is pure GOLD. Thank you for the recommendation!

DIAKITÉ: Yes, thank you!