John Orpheus Build Community Via Pan-African Grooves on 'Goatlife'

John Orpheus Build Community Via Pan-African Grooves on 'Goatlife'
Photo: R. Kelly Clipperton
From the ashes arrive Toronto's John Orpheus, literally. Trinidadian-born, Kitchener, ON-based poet/singer-songwriter John Orpheus, aka J.O., underwent a renewal of sorts two years ago when, while he was out of town, his home suffered a fire, wiping out most of his worldly possessions. It was a humbling moment, but one he says offered a chance to regroup and reinvent.
Today, John Orpheus is both the individual and the collective: as a three-piece, Orpheus is joined by DJ/percussionist Sarah Jane Riegler and vocalist/dancer Chaenel Mattis, who create a vibe they both claim as their own and credit to the multi-cultural community they serve. The group regularly hold a traveling open mic series called Haus Orpheus, combining live performances, DJ sets, spoken word and local vendors.
"It's about love in the music that we're spreading," Mattis tells Exclaim! "We are sharing our music and accepting everything from everyone who comes out." Collectively, through Goatlife tracks like "Parachute" and "Come Fresh," themes of community, intersectionality and Pan-Africanism emerge by way of disparate yet cohesive party-styled sounds. "People are loving and coming together because of what we do and what we are literally giving to the crowd."
"Out of the ashes of that fire, we said 'Let's narrow down who we are as a group: what we believe and what we want to say, how we want to say, who we want [to] say it with.' So there's a progression," J.O. explains. "Sarah and I had been playing in a band before, but in a bigger configuration in a previous iteration of the band. We always talked about making pop songs around African rhythms. She had been to Ghana and learned a lot of traditional rhythms. We just decided to work together and create four mixtapes we recorded and released every three months. That was about getting better at our craft in terms of refining our voice and building our band. That's how it all kicked off."
"We had been working together for like three years," Riegler adds. "The previous band was a huge band, like the Roots.  Once we got on this mixtape project, we pared things down a lot. Now it's a trio."
It took about two years and three mixtapes for the Toronto-based crew to arrive at the Mike Schlosser-produced Goatlife, and the journey has been as just as important as the destination. John Orpheus dropped three mixtapes in 2017, each with their own take on Pan-African musicality: the hip-hop-fuelled Goldchain Hennessey; the jump-up groove of Bacchanal; and the West African-mined Black Star Rising.
"When we first met, I was playing in country and indie rock bands as a drummer," says Riegler. "I got into West African rhythms as a percussionist about a decade ago. We got to talking and decided to form a band with beats rooted in this tradition. So I will just loop rhythms in the studio with our producer — I'll play them on djembe, bells, rattles what have you. And John just creates from there, picking the rhythms that I've laid down, and writing lyrics."
Goatlife is the culmination of this process, notes J.O. "We were sort of finding our way through those sounds and Goatlife is the culmination of that, basically everything we've learned over this process. Not only musically but as friends as this group and as a community. In the course of making these mixtapes we now have dance parties and open mics in the community. It's about that community coming together."
Goatlife is out now as an independent release.