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Orchestra Gold’s creative conversation heals with new album “Medicine”

Erich Huffaker of the Oakland-based band Orchestra Gold talks of the first time he knew that the music he was creating with his friend Mariam Diakite was something special. They were practicing at her house in Mali; he had his guitar, and she sang in the Bambara language a song about a lemon tree. Erich still has the demo recording of “Lemuru,” which appears in complete form on their album African Psychedelic Rock. With the full band, the song kicks off with a looping trance-inducing, fuzzed-up electric guitar before dropping into a syncopated stop-start beat. Mariam’s voice beams through, transmitting something you can’t turn away from. Within this can’t-help-but-dance rhythm, punctuated by bursts of brass and a high-life vibe bass, you can hear the influence of traditional Malian music and classic psychedelic rock. A mash-up of two musical worlds in one solid sound.

Mariam and Erich first met in 2006 at a wedding where Mariam was performing. Erich was in Mali for an internship and Mariam was doing odd jobs like cloth dying and doing henna while also making music and performing at weddings and other gatherings as a sort of vibe setter. After years of friendship, they began jamming and working on demos. Though Mariam doesn’t recall the same spark with “Lemuru” as Erich does, she says that his realization that they were making magic made her develop a consciousness around the idea so she began to see it too.

On their forthcoming album, “Medicine,” the long-time friends have built on the foundation of the dance-oriented, Bambara folk music and developed a sonic language of their own. “When we first started the band, it was really focused on reinterpreting some of the older songs from Mali,” Mariam says, speaking Bambara with Erich translating to English. “But it's really evolved into us trying to create something new that's just more a pure expression of our musical histories and where they intersect.”

Erich adds: “I think we realized that at a certain point, we could only really just be ourselves. That old music is really beautiful, and I love it to death. But I think there's probably a higher purpose involved in us trying to make a unique expression of what the sound is like when our two worlds come together and collide.”

On the second single from the album, “Koniya” Mariam’s voice repeats after itself over crunchy guitar and a steady, assured beat like a signal of confidence in what they can create at their most authentic. The album “Medicine,” Mariam says, is so named because she believes that if she’s creating music that feels healing to her it will be healing for other people too. Like there is a lock within the music lover and any voice or style of music can be the key. As an increasing number of listeners and fans can attest, there’s something about the meeting of these two minds from opposite ends of the earth that holds the key to their musical ear locks.

“I think the interesting thing about our band is just that it's really us in creative conversation with each other,” Erich says. When they started talking about Mariam moving to the U.S. to continue the band, she went to consult her spiritual teacher. “She asked for his blessing to work in the United States, and he gave it to her,” begins Erich, telling one of his favorite stories about his friend. “And he told her that it would be a good thing for her to do that. That speaks to me about her. She's not the kind of person that would just do something for money, she would do it because it's for a higher purpose. And to have her spiritual teacher bless this was important for her because it also meant that it was in alignment with something higher.”

To hear the music through speakers and headphones is one thing, but to experience Mariam and Orchestra Gold live is to know why the blessing was given. Even if you don’t understand the words sung in Bambara, you receive the messages through the way her body moves, the shakes of the shekere, and the enchanting siren of her voice while the band behind creates layers of rhythms and melodies to take you along with her. It is medicinal in the way that music offers a release for joy and sorrow and all the emotions in between, and it is magic to get to hear this one-of-a-kind dialect between friends.

"Medicine" is out now.