Photo by Maya Dagnino, courtesy of XL Recordings
There’s a family bond that pulls together the music of the French and Cuban duo Ibeyi. Not only are the two artists twin sisters, but their father was the world-renowned Cuban percussionist Anga Díaz, a member of the Buena Vista Social Club. Their mother is also a singer; indeed, the whole family is musically inclined.
Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Díaz are sandwiched together in the screen when I Skype with them from their home in Paris. Squeezed together, they complement each other. Naomi’s long hair sits on her shoulders and Lisa-Kaindé’s tall afro is pulled up in a bun. Lisa-Kaindé is bubbly and effervescent, while Naomi’s demeanor is a bit more laid-back. They both exude youth—they are 19 years old, after all—but their music is something else, otherworldly and historic. When you listen to their recent and only singles—“Mama Says,” “Oya,” and “River”—you wouldn’t think a pair of teenagers had written and composed these narratives.
“I usually say [our music] is negro spirituals but in a contemporary way,” Lisa-Kaindé says, when pressed to describe their sound.
Skype screenshots by the author
Ibeyi is multidimensional, both sonically and intellectually alluring. Aesthetically, the girls are brazenly experimental; their music fuses together blues, soul, electronica, and even hip-hop soundscapes to create a haunting sound. Naomi, who is the spitting image of her father, is the percussionist, playing cajón and Batá drum (she also sings back-up vocals). Lisa-Kaindé, a softer image of her father, sings lead vocals and plays piano. They speak four languages—Spanish, French, English, and the West African language Yoruba—which attaches a new flood of emotional, cultural, and historical value to their music. Their use of the Peruvian cajón, the Yoruba Batá drum, and Yoruba prayers also speaks to their mixed culture.
The joy in their music can be found by peeling away the layers of culture, history, and ancestry. Even their live performances are inspiring, as they are also linked by birth. For instance, during their live performance of “Mama Says,” while Lisa-Kaindé croons the opening lyrics, “The man is gone / Mama says / That she can’t live without him,” in between riffs on her piano, Naomi joins in by slapping the front-side of her cajón, intermittently slapping her thighs and chest, and snapping her fingers. Onstage, they can read each other; the music flows organically between them, connecting them.
When speaking, they sometimes chime in at the exact same time, as if they’re reading each other’s minds; other times, their answers are complete opposites and are offered in different tones: Lisa-Kaindé is thoughtful and quiet, while Naomi acts on instinct. Later, they describe their personalities to me in a beautiful and succinct manner, “Lisa-Kaindé is the melody, while Naomi is the rhythm.” As a duo, they end up creating the harmony between them.
The duo signed to XL Recordings last year after label head Richard Russell saw the live version of “Mama Says”, an eclectic addition to XL’s already eclectic roster. Now, they are slated to release their self-titled debut album in February 2015, an ode to their elder sister and father. This week, they are playing their first US shows in New York and Los Angeles.
Knowing their father alone, it seems that the twins were born to play music. They began playing instruments when they were seven; Lisa-Kaindé was drawn to the piano, while Naomi was drawn to classical percussion. Naomi picked up playing the cajón and Batá drum when her father passed away in 2006, and she has since lost interest in classical percussion instruments. They were born in Paris, spent a short stint in Cuba—two and a half years—then moved back to Paris to attend classical music school, visiting Cuba every year for holidays and vacations. They didn’t live very long with their father because he was always touring.
“[Our father] was happy knowing that we’re playing music,” Lisa-Kaindé says. “He never told us you must do music, you must work. He was not like that at all. [Our music is] a way to make people think about him and make people aware that he was an amazing musician and that what he did was really, really beautiful. It’s a really big joy to speak about our father every day.”
When I ask if their father sang, they have a wonderful showing of their twin-sister-repartee. “Oh no!” They both exclaim. “He was so out of tune,” Naomi explains, while Lisa-Kaindé says, “So out of tune. He has so beautiful and strong ears,” (both of them say ‘ears’), “but I don’t know how, why he was so…”
“Awful,” Naomi finishes. They often end each other’s sentences.
Despite their close relationship and extensive musical backgrounds, the sisters only began making music together relatively recently. Lisa-Kaindé began singing four years ago and began composing first, with the help of their mother. The twins officially began working together two and a half years ago, around the time when Naomi started singing. Lisa-Kaindé initially composes and writes their music alone, then works with her sister and family members—namely her mother and uncle. “We love working with family,” Naomi says. “Family always,” Lisa-Kaindé agrees.
Their mother is half-Venezuelan and half-French, while their father was Afro-Cuban. That part of their lineage originates from Western Africa, from the Yoruba people of Nigeria and Benin. The twins grew up around the Yoruba culture, which has had a remarkable impact on their music. The first languages they learned were French and Spanish, but their favorite languages to sing in are English and Yoruba. The name Ibeyi translates to twins in Yoruba: Fraternal twins are very prevalent in Yoruba tradition. “Twins in the Yoruban villages are really important because they won the devil,” Lisa-Kaindé explains. “So in the mythology they are important, they are blessed. And people sing for them. They are not gods, but they are really blessed. In Nigeria, you can see that twins are important. When you are the mother of twins, people celebrate you.”
The girls don’t consider themselves Nigerian or Beninese, but they believe that their legacy comes from those countries. Many of the Yoruba people were enslaved and shipped to countries like Cuba, Brazil, and Trinidad and Tobago during the Atlantic slave trade. In Cuba, there are villages and towns where the Yoruba language remains, which is how the girls have had access to the language and culture. When asked how they feel a connection with the Yoruba culture after hundreds of years, Lisa-Kaindé’s answer is resolute, “We have been in this atmosphere and we feel that it’s our legacy and it’s a way to connect with our father and with our country, and it’s a way to connect with our ancestors. It really is a big part of us.” The Yoruba lyrics that appears in their songs—at the end of their song “River,” for example—are old prayers that they grew up listening to. The Yoruba the twins sing is what remains orally from the slaves, prayers they sung during religious ceremonies in Cuba.
The twins use more Yoruba lore in their music. The single “Oya” is named after the female Orisha who “answers on the graves,” Lisa-Kaindé says. “‘River’ was a vision for Oshun, which is the Orisha of the rivers and the fertility, and it’s also our mother,” she says, “Our mother is the daughter of Oshun…”
Naomi finishes, “The rivers and the fertility. I’m daughter of Shango, the thunder; Lisa is daughter of Yemaja, the sea.”
Ibeyi’s blend of music and history is a direct reflection of their mixed heritage. I ask them about the layers in their music, of sound, history, culture, family, spirituality. Lisa-Kaindé says, “It was kind of natural, we never thought about it, but when the album was finished, we realized that yes, the main subject is love and family, and yes, a lot of spirituality is in it, and yes, prayers.” They continue thinking through the question—together, naturally.
“[We find inspiration in] love,” Naomi says.
“Love and heartbroken situations. I think joy too,” Lisa-Kaindé responds.
“Family and death,” Naomi says.
“What you have in your heart,” says Lisa-Kaindé.
“And death,” Naomi insists.
“Yes, and death. And life, inspiration from life,” Lisa-Kaindé finishes.
Ibeyi make their US live debut tonight at Joe's Pub in New York City, and they play the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles on Thursday.
Tara Mahadevan gets her inspiration from life, too. Follow her on Twitter.