Exclusive: Orchestra Gold Returning to Boise for Great Garden Escape

Erich Huffaker and Mariam Diakité of Orchestra Gold

African psychedelic-rock combo and Treefort Festival 2021 participants Orchestra Gold are coming back to Boise next month for a plum gig at the Idaho Botanical Garden’s Great Garden Escape series, the Bad Penny exclusively announces today. The concert will take place June 30 at the Meditation Garden, as part of a lineup that also includes Afrosonics and Hillfolk Noir.

Led by Malian singer and dancer Mariam Diakité and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Erich Huffaker, the Oakland-based Orchestra Gold channel old-school folkloric music from Mali. More specifically, the band describes its sound “horn-driven rhythmic ‘orchestra’ music from ’70s-era Mali, West Africa, with a contemporary twist: analog psych-rock fused with Malian folklore.”

“The Great Garden Escape concert series features upbeat music, dancing and friends,” concert promoter Duck Club said in a previous statement. Musical performances run from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., and attendees are welcome to bring blankets and folding chairs. Ticket holders are allowed to bring in food and non-alcoholic beverage too, although food and drink options (including wine, beer and cocktails) will be available on-site.

On Sunday, the Bad Penny caught up with Huffaker to discuss Orchestra Gold’s show at the Great Garden Escape on June 30:

Glad to hear you’re eager to return to Boise so soon!

Erich Huffaker: Yeah, we really enjoyed playing Treefort. We got to talk to a lot of amazing people, like yourself, who are extremely supportive of what we’re doing and help share our story. That burst of love was amazing and made it really natural that we wanted to come back and play again.

Also, we’re an emerging band, and we’re at an arc in our growth where we’re starting to play places where we can continue to grow organically. I also played Boise in 2011 or 2012 with another band that I was in, and it felt welcoming. It seems like a place artists can go and play their music and feel really at home quickly.

How did the plan to play in Boise again come about?

Huffaker: It took a little time. We’ve been in touch with Eric Gilbert [promoter/co-founder of Treefort and owner of local booking company Duck Club], and he sent us a message and asked us if we were interested in coming back and playing at the Botanical Garden. Eric is very warm and welcoming.

Do you recall any poignant moments that encapsulated that sense of feeling comfortable here?

Huffaker: When we were in Boise for Treefort, we shot an impromptu music performance with Eric in the foothills. The sun was setting, they were filming us, and we played a jammier version of one of our songs, with me playing guitar, Mariam singing and [our drummer] Aaron [Kierbel] playing cajón.

The song, “Baye Ass N’diaye,” is decided to Mariam’s spiritual teacher, a devotee of the Bhai tradition, a religion found all over West Africa but centered in Senegal. It sounded different because of the energy of that perfect day in Boise.

Is that song a staple of your set?

Huffaker: It’s a newer song we wrote last year. We’ll probably play it at the Botanical Garden.

Are you planning to unveil any tracks from the 2023 record?

Huffaker: No, but we do have some other new songs we’ve been playing lately. We have two performances between now and then, so depending on how things go, we’ll keep certain songs or take certain songs away.

How is the new album coming along?

Huffaker: We’re working with Chico [Mann] from Antibalas and Here Lies Man. He’s going to be mixing our album. I’m personally very excited about that, because there’s a lot of crossover in our aesthetics. He’s always getting involved with projects that have a retro, gritty, analog sound in them. He’s really awesome. He’s also been super-inspiring and supportive of us as a band as well, in mixing the album. The album is probably going to be released in January, and we’re going to push some of the singles out in the fall.

So, did you have any takeaways from performing at Treefort? You seem like a very insightful person who takes performing music seriously and is reflective. Did anything happen at Treefort that you took and carried forward?

Huffaker: I appreciate that compliment. We played Treefort without a horn section, so that meant the guitar had to step up and take up more space in the arrangement in the songs. Treefort was the first time we’d done that. And it was important, because it demonstrated to me that it can be done. And that opens up more possibilities for us as a band. Horns have been an integral part of the sound since we started the band. This was the first time that we deviated from that. I still prefer when we can have horns, but sometimes — life being what it is — you can’t have your ideal scenario in all circumstances. Especially with economics being what they are. Knowing that we could go and rock a set as a four-piece and have people feel the same things they felt at our normal shows was very empowering for us. It opened up a lot of possibilities.

It gave you a greater sense of agility and confidence as well, possibly?

Huffaker: Yeah, because I’ve always been very self-conscious about my guitar playing. So knowing that can play a greater role is … it’s been comfortable for me to hide behind the horn section because: a) I love horns; and b) I think it’s probably more interesting musically if horns play a larger role. But also, it’s good for all of us to develop our expression so that we’re more self-confident at it, so it’s a development between those two points.

May I ask why you feel self-conscious sometimes about playing guitar?

Huffaker: Yeah, that’s a good question. At the root of it is this interesting position of being a white person who loves black music and slowly unpacking, for myself, all the baggage that comes along with that. There’s such a history of white people exploiting black people and black culture that, in some way, shape or form, as a white person, we participate in that legacy when we play black music. Maybe we have the best of intentions, but in some ways, we’re still participating. So I have been in a place where I’ve been stuck in that for a while. 

The question inevitably arises: So, what are you going to do? Are you going to continue business as usual or are you going to stop or are you going to try to do something better? And I realized for me I had to be better. So that meant that, if I was going to benefit from this black art form over here, I have to give way more back on this other side, in order to compensate not only for what I’m doing but for what other white or white-passing people have done all the way back. 

At the root of my self-consciousness was that tension. It was a tension that was pushing me to a greater understanding of myself and the impacts that I have in the world. Ultimately, it was an opportunity for me to grow and align my intention and actions a little bit more.

Thank you for that profound answer. There’s a lot of candor there, and I appreciate you confiding that. It calls to mind the Rolling Stones “retiring” “Brown Sugar” from their live performances. Did you find that the audiences you’ve played here in Boise — Idaho is more than 95 percent white — was very receptive to your performances?

Huffaker: Yeah. I think that, for a lot of our audience, there’s a desire to experience culture — a culture or music that’s deeper or different than our own. It gives us a sense of belonging in a weird way. It does for me too.

There’s been this journey, Kurt, of trying to understand our audience better over the last year, and that’s something I’m realizing deeply that people are there for. I think people that Mariam creates that experience for a lot of people and the music. Back to what I was talking about earlier, my realization over the last years is that, integral to us having that experience, is us using that as a launching point to think about how our racial identity its informing that experience. So me, as a white person — or a white-passing person, depending on who you ask — experiencing African culture, there’s just a lot in that. There’s a lot of privilege in that, a lot of ways it’s easier for me to experience it than a person of color. 

As a band, I’m hoping the direction we’re moving is to better provide people with that experience but also to better provide people with a launching point into some personal perspective around how our race is impacting the desire for culture.

Is the path that you’re presenting to the audience solely through the music but also the backend where maybe, for example, you — on your website — direct bands to other artists or labels? In other words, are there other means where you can guide people with the desire you described to go further with it, beyond just the music?

Huffaker: That’s a really good question, Kurt. When we were talking with Chico, he also provided us with some guidance and advice, and he said your life is your story. To your point, I don’t think it necessarily stops with the music, because the choices that I’ve made in my life have brought me around certain people, so by me highlighting certain elements of that, I can help other people who may like our music have that experience through another channel.

I did these interviews when we were in Mali last year, and I think they are a good example of that process at play. [Released through Bandcamp,] we have these different people talking about different elements of Malian culture, and as we’re released the interviews, people have told me, “Oh, this is good, because I can learn about this element of Malian culture,” that element of the culture and so on. It’s about providing that experience to people, providing that piece that’s bigger than our culture.

I think the piece that I’m growing into — because it’s ultimately uncomfortable and challenging to me — is bringing up how this racial piece is bringing up this desire for culture also. How we get, ironically, greater access to African resources — as white people — than even more African-American people have in the U.S. who are genetically linked to those histories but who, through the ravages of slavery and economic injustice and all these other things that have been brought upon African-American people, it’s — even for them to access those same things is way more difficult. Again, using our platform to bring people into connection with that culture as much as we can, but then also trying to move it forward by talking about how all our different positions are impacting that.

In practical terms, you’re talking about buying a plane ticket, being able to take time off work, having that economic advantage …

Huffaker: Totally. Exactly. One hundred and eleven percent.

You’re on Chapter 3 of the Mali series, right?

Huffaker: Yes, we’re putting out Chapter 3 next week, actually.

Is there going to be any coinciding with that and your live performances? Or is it a separate project altogether?

Huffaker: I don’t think so. But we’re doing a performance in Oakland [through Bandcamp on June 3] where we’re pairing a 30-to-35-minute live discussion with a performance afterward. And it’s going to be filmed, and we’ll probably release the film afterward as well. Other than that, it would require a lot of orchestration … maybe you can show us how that would be done!

Last question: What are you most looking forward to in returning to Boise?

Huffaker: I’m looking forward to going back to the [Record Exchange]. Lots of good vibes there.

Here is the full schedule for this year’s Great Garden Escape series:

6.23: Amuma Says No
6.30: Orchestra Gold 
7.7: Hillfolk Noir 
7.14: Smokey Brights 
7.21: Scott Pemberton O Theory 
7.28: Jackie Venson 
8.4: Garcia Peoples 
8.11: Lounge on Fire
8.18: Afrosonics with The Santucci Brothers & Mungo 
8.25: Boise Straight Ahead 

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