Treasures from Mali with Orchestra Gold; Ben Goldberg’s Archimedes Lullaby

Malian vocalist and dancer Mariam Diakité is the dynamic front woman of Orchestra Gold, which performs Friday at Ashkenaz on a double bill with the dub-reggae orchestra Joseph’s Bones. Photo: Steven Huffaker

Coming of age in Bamako in the late 1980s, Mariam Diakité wanted to sing and dance. Scratch that. She needed to sing and dance, so much so that she was willing to defy her father, an old-school Malian patriarch who believed that only ne’er-do-wells spent time hanging out at nightclubs.

“My younger brother and I started studying music at the same time by sneaking out at night and climbing over the back wall to go play,” she said in Bambara. “He would never let us go out at night. He was very religious, and thought nothing good happens if you go to one of these places.”

Since landing in the East Bay in March, Diakité has been sharing her hard-won knowledge as dancer and lead singer in Orchestra Gold, an ensemble devoted to the surging, horn-driven sound that made the West African nation a creative force in the years following independence from France in 1960. Orchestra Gold plays a late set Friday at Ashkenaz on a double bill with drummer/composer Jason Levis’s formidable 14-piece dub-reggae orchestra Jospeh’s Bones.

In coming to the Bay Area, Diakité reconnected with Oakland multi-instrumentalist Erich Huffaker, who had met her back in 2006 while working in Mali with Jigi, a small French NGO. “She was a dancer in the wedding drum-and-dance scene, playing ceremonies, and we became good friends in the three years I was living there,” said Huffaker, who served as translator for the interview with Diakité.


They stayed in touch when he returned to California, through the desperate times of the 2012 civil war that saw northern Mali overrun by radical Islamists who destroyed instruments and persecuted musicians (among other horrors). Back in Mali for a visit after things settled down in 2014, Huffaker started thinking about creating a band to focus on Diakité’s vocals after hearing her rendition of an old song “Lemura.” They ended up recording the piece and it’s one of the tracks on Orchestra Gold’s soon-to-be-released EP.

Back in the Bay Area, Huffaker started talking with musicians and preparing for her arrival. He worked closely with Berkeley-reared tenor saxophonist Rafi Garabedian to come up with horn lines for songs gleaned from Mali’s fading golden age, when bands like Super Biton de Ségou, guitarist Djelimady Tounkara’s Rail Band starring Salif Keita, and Les Ambassadeurs created music that swept across the continent.

“The building blocks of our music are folkloric songs, often told in parable,” Huffaker said. “These songs contain inspiration, wisdom, and deep insight into the human condition that can bring us a renewed perspective on modern-day existence. They’ve long uplifted Malians beyond the harsh realities of daily life.”

In addition to Huffaker’s guitar and Garabedian’s tenor saxophone, Orchestra Gold features Luis Andrade on saxophone and flute, Berkeley bassist Luke Bacé, Cuban-born percussionist David Pedroso Rivero, drummer Leila Elizabeth, and Guinean percussionist Namory Keita. And the dynamo out front is Diakité, who has spent her life soaking up Malian traditions.

Educated in Arabic at a madrasa, she grew up speaking Bambara in an ethnically mixed family with a Fulani father and Malinke mother. Married young, she had to give up music for several years because her husband didn’t approve. “It’s difficult,” she said. “It depends on your husband. Some are understanding and will let you do music, but some are jealous and they won’t. Some singers will make a point only to marry another musician.”

When she was free to pursue her passions again, she spent 15 years with Bamako’s top dance group, Troupe Sewa. Diakité earned notice as a featured performer in Ramata Diakité’s hit single “Sigui Water Buffalo)” and represented Bamako’s traditional music in Aja Salvatore’s acclaimed 2011 documentary Mali: Life is Hard, Music is Good.

“Musically, it’s such a small world,” Huffaker said. “She’s played with Djelimady Tounkara in 2002, and she’s played with Salif Keita. Everybody knows everyone. Artists aren’t hidden away. Her family’s  compound is next door to Fatoumata Diawara’s. When she came to see Fatoumata perform at Freight & Salvage last month, Fatoumata took one look and said, ‘What the hell are you doing here?!’”


Ultimately, Diakité  hopes to share the music and dance that she loves and find new audiences. Her goal is to share her music with people. She’s presenting a two-part workshop on traditional Malian music and dance at BrasArte on Nov. 18 and Dec. 2, but for the full package, the place to be is Ashkenaz.

Recommended gig: Ben Goldberg at JCC East Bay Saturday

What do you do when you’re sitting around a 15th-century castle in Umbria, Italy? Well, if you’re Berkeley clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg, you delve into a book of poetry by Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Heavenly Questions. Enjoying a Civitella Ranieri artist-in-residence stint in the summer of 2017, he was particularly struck by the 2010 volume’s opening piece, “Archimedes Lullaby,” an extended poem that’s “a meditation on Archimedes on his final days,” says Goldberg, noting that Schnackenberg had done a residency at the castle the previous year.

He premieres the new evening-length work “Archimedes Lullaby” Saturday at Berkeley’s JCC East Bay with alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, keyboardist Michael Coleman, electric guitarist Andrew Conklin, drummer Hamir Atwal, and Jon Arkin (best known as an intrepid drummer) on laptop and live electronics. “Everyone I’ll be working with is a good friend and close confidant,” Goldberg says. “The piece has elements that show up once or reoccur. I have a feeling the piece will almost be made out of scraps that haven’t found a home, a rumination using objects accumulated over the years.”

A supremely lyrical improviser and prolific composer, Goldberg has created a vast body of work for variably sized ensembles. In the poem, Archimedes has this theory he could figure out how many grains of sand are in the world. “He invented a catapult, and how to figure out the volume an irregular shaped object,” Goldberg says in admiration, half likening his melodies to grains of sand. “I’ve written a lot of music, and I’m writing a lot of music every single day. Some of it sticks and gets into the repertoire, and some of it doesn’t. I like both aspects.”