REVIEW: John Orpheus takes us to play mas on BACCHANAL

John Orpheus is a prime example of a "diaspora defender." He’s doing it in a contemporary way through his music, derived from his roots in New Grant, a small town in south central Trinidad, not too far off from San Fernando. His new BACCHANAL mixtape arrives just in time for Carnival, a season of feteing, wining, jukking and debauchery before Lent. 

Bacchanal is a term derived from Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. It is often associated with lewd debauchery, and used in Carnival context to describe wild behaviour and hysteria surrounding the celebration. If you’re not familiar with the cultural traditions and importance of Carnival, check out Traditional Mas Archive (a super fantastic resource), so we can delve into Orpheus’ six-track release. Bang the drum, commands a robot-like voice at the intro of “Stay Woke,” as percussive rhythms set the pulse through strong verses of a raw, anthem of black history and identity. At two and a half minutes, it’s the perfect, brief statement to set the tone of the tape.

“So We Say,” is a gracious love song with beautiful lyrics that depict self-discovery, selflessness and affirmation. Driven by a steady beat and deep keys, before diving into an 808 break of dark electronics, before Orpheus closes where he started:

“this is more than love/ this is real / this is more than love, this nakedness you feel /
always wanted love to help me see/ what more can I be when I say /
I believe in something more than just me?”

Orpheus’ effortless blend of West African rhythms, traditional Dancehall and Soca elements, electronica, ambient vibes and a blend of vocal styles flows throughout BACCHANAL. A perfect example is “J’ouvert,” where Orpheus chronicles Carnival’s first party. J’ouvert, meaning daybreak or dawn, in French Creole, is celebrated throughout the Caribbean and marks the start of Carnival, on the Monday preceding Lent. People crowd the streets, playing mas and painting each other in neon bright hues, drinking until sunrise to Soca blasting from soundsystems stacked on transport trucks. But the track itself is unlike one you’d hear on J’ouvert. Commencing with Disclosure-esque synths, Orpheus employs native language, as voices whisper, “Jab jab” (Jab Molassie is one of several devil mas characters played in T&T Carnival, often smothered in tar, grease, lard or red/blue/green paint) singing,

“In the Caribbean it seems, they drinking up in the streets,
they partying to the beat, naked bodies grinding in heat,
and mud and oil on they face, the DJ pick up the pace.
Tell the big truck this ain’t no race, gyaldem drop in, take in di weight,
Yeah, been a long night drinking, this the wrong time for t’inking, eyes wide, she not blinking, catch a vibe, let it sink in, been a long night smoking, proper vibes we not joking,
Now the whole crew floating, let the music soak in.”

As subtle steel pan lead the song, Orpheus lists every wine, juk and chip along the way. It’s as if you were watching J’ouvert on Ariapita Avenue in slo-mo.

“Jiggy AF” throws you off in the best way. What starts off with a bashment riddim, Orpheus flows into classic Toronto hip-hop. With references to Mississauga, “cray-cray Alize,” and the homies, Orpheus moves between Caribbean slang (erry ting bless, wasteman) and North American language (erry ting fresh), getting on the level of every first-gen born diaspora kid. More importantly, it’s an example of how this language has evolved into everyday vocabulary within the diasporas. As Orpheus proclaims, “We don’t give a damn what de people say!” it’s a definite do-you chorale of being comfortable in your own skin.

But it’s not all about the party on BACCHANAL. Orpheus tenderly transitions to deep, introspective prose on “Fools In Love,” telling the story of love lost. Cinematic production make for a serious, somber tone on this one.

BACCHANAL closes with the epic “Black Girl Magic.” Praising the strength of black women, and their ancestors (“See the grace in the moves when she get down, she don’t gotta show and prove that she fresh now”), Orpheus pays homage to the women in his life with effortless flow to this trap-laden party track.

What culminates as a short, but sweet blend of emotions, sounds and sentiments is the at the core of BACCHANAL. The one thing that remains constant throughout Orpheus’ mixtape is the concept, which is, simply put, Bacchanal. It’s the recipe for celebration, with the pre, climax and post scenes in between. Orpheus exhibits diaspora dialogue in an accessible way, for those within or outside the Caribbean. With a contemporary approach that is fun, rather than intimidating, BACCHANAL is a sonic exploration of roots, culture and adaptation.   



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