ORINDA -- The fourth annual Orinda Jazz Festival is proving one cliché, "It helps to have friends in high places," isn't so cliché after all.
Founded by musician Carol Alban and arts presenter Beau Behan in 2011, this year's festival headliner is Amikaeyla Gaston, a multi-award-winning jazz vocalist and good friend of Alban. Joining them for the one-day event at the Orinda Library Auditorium on Sunday, Aug. 17 are two-time Grammy Award-winning violinist Mads Tolling, bassist Marc Levine, pianist Ben Flint and other star performers in what they say is starting to feel like a community reunion. Tolling and Flint participated in the 2012 festival, and Alban's Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center appearances are past indicators of her ongoing, high-profile connections throughout the industry.
The joyful "thick as thieves" relationships between musical colleagues means Alban and Behan find it increasingly easy to attract top talent. With proceeds from the festival donated to The Orinda Arts Council, an organization dedicated to promoting arts-related activities for all ages in Lamorinda, good will abounds. Behan writes in an email that close to 300 attendees garnered close to $3,000 for the OAC in 2013, and that he'd like to see the event expand to multiple stages and satellite venues. He said he has been pleased with the festival's progressive growth.
Audiences will likely be pleased with Gaston. Praised by National Public Radio as having one of the "purest contemporary voices" and boasting collaborations with world-class musicians in multiple genres, the mezzo-soprano has a special affinity for jazz. Accompaniment from percussion instrumentation -- sometimes as simple as her two hands -- could be considered her hallmark. But if there are words that describe Gaston best, one needs only look to the definition of her chosen stage name, "Amikaeyla," a combination of her first and middle names.
"It's a name that exists in many languages, I discovered," Gaston said in a phone interview. "I've been told it means either 'beloved warrior' or 'nectar of God.'"
In Orinda, Gaston will lead a community workshop she has titled "Power of Sound." Emphasizing self-expression in an environment free from judgment, she says participants' inner child will come out and play. Kids and adults, she insists, rarely have an opportunity to shout or "drum really, really loud" without getting into trouble.
Gaston, who splits her time between homes in Oakland and Washington, D.C., has traveled throughout the world, bringing music to populations who've long been muzzled. Founding the International Cultural Arts and Healing Sciences Institute, her message of healing and wellness through the gift of sound has been adopted by humanitarian organizations, hospitals and transition homes, and others. Shortly before the Syrian Uprising, a tour took Gaston into Iraqi refugee camps and into living rooms in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
"At first I worried about the paper ork and that we'd be pushed back," she recalls. "But we persisted. (The refugees) just want to be on the map and get their stories told. Now that they can't go home, they're displacement is disconcerting."
Cultural obliteration -- the aftermath of war Gaston says we don't talk about enough -- results when children hide and elders forget.
"One woman told me, 'I have no memories, only sadness,' so I sang a song from ancient Africa," Gaston said.
The music cracked the mental shield the woman had put up to protect herself. Remembering her former freedom, the woman recalled a song of her own and cried, because the moment reminded her that she is human, not just a shell, waiting for the next bad thing to happen.
Refugee children, Gaston claims, have responded similarly.
"When I allowed them to sing and drum loudly, they began to play loudly. They were free in that moment in time." Promising the same sensation for festival goers, Gaston says, "They'll close their eyes and let their voice be heard. For two hours, we put all the fear down and share."
General admission tickets to the two concerts ("Mads Tolling & Carol Alban & Friends" and "Amikaeyla Gaston Concert") are available. Special backstage pass packages with tickets to one or both concerts include admission to the "OAC Après Jazz Party" with wine, hors d'oeuvres and an opportunity to meet the artists.