Ibeyi — pronounced “ee-bey-ee” — (something of course only discovered via embarrassing initial mispronunciation), is derived from ibeji, the yoruba word for a divinity of twins believed to have special, spiritual powers. This is fitting given that French-Cuban 20 year olds Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Díaz are indeed twins, with a musical output that seems to reference the soulful Nigerian praise songs of their ancestry as much as it does contemporary, haunting electronic and hip hop. Signed to the prolific XL Records, their eponymous debut — out this month — serves as a reminder as to why, in an age of internet-induced, maddeningly short attention spans and Spotify playlists, the album format has retained its relevance. Captivating, cohesive, familiar yet entirely fresh, there is a strikingly accomplished sense of warmth and shiver-inducing elegy that listening to Ibeyi evokes.
Speaking to the sweetly enthusiastic pair via Skype — though born in Cuba, they live predominantly in their hometown of Paris — that old myth of twin synchronicity becomes increasingly apparent throughout the interview. There are frequent instances of them completing one anothers’ sentences, brief interludes where they will confirm things with each other in French and the occasional interjection to correct the other — be it on their opinion or their English. Needless to say, it can make keeping up with them slightly tricky.
“I think it’s really helpful,” begins pianist Lisa somewhat hesitantly on the topic of their twin concurrences and how it influences their sound, before percussionist Naomi picks up for her. “I think the interesting thing about our music is that it’s a mix between our two selves.”
“Yeah,” Lisa agrees. “Cause we’re not ‘twins’ like every twin we’re like —”
“Different,” Naomi chimes in once more, “We’re very different people, and I think that’s why it’s interesting — it’s because we are mixing ourselves that this album is sounding the way it does.”
It’s fascinating the way in which they play off one another like this, seemingly unintentionally highlighting that, for all their purported differences, there remains an underlying similarity and intuitiveness between them. It is admittedly clear that Naomi is, in many ways, the more outgoing of the two, readily and exuberantly filling in any tentative blanks from her more reserved sister, and happily waxing lyrical a mile a minute about everything from her favourite new artists to how great Whiplash was (“Best movie of the year!”). With that said though, Lisa — more of an old soul in her tastes — is in no way as shy as many interviews have painted her, and there is a certain palpable excitement that radiates through her more relaxed, slower sentences, particularly when describing Ibeyi’s origins three years ago: “I started composing at 14, and I had no clue […] that I was going to — that we were going to — make an album! I thought I was going to be a music teacher, and someone asked me if I wanted to do an EP, and Naomi said ‘you are not going to do an EP without me!’”. The pair laugh as Lisa continues, “And I said ‘No I am not!’”
There is a cheery youthfulness to their manner of speech which serves as a reminder of their age, and it makes the honed sound of their album particularly impressive. The sisters, however, insist that their age is irrelevant: “We all have something to say, we just have to find it”, says Naomi, “Of course we worked a lot, and we still are working a lot, but — young or old — everybody has to work! I do believe that music has no age — you know, Mozart started composing at 7.” This comparison immediately results in laughter from her twin, who admits, “We are mature for some stuff, but also we are just 20 — we can be children. It’s not to do with age, it’s to do with what you feel and what you want to say.”
And it is certainly apparent from listening to their stunning debut that these two have a lot to say, with their incredibly mature, beautiful, often quite hymnal lyrics about life, family, love and death (sung via their perfectly harmonious, soulful vocals) not to mention the aforementioned amalgamation of musical genres their songs explore. What really sets their sound apart though is their use of yoruba rhythms swathed with brushes of contemporary electronics. Yoruba culture travelled from West Africa to South America with slaves in the 1700s and has always been a big part of the sisters’ lives, given they were initiated into the religion and grew up surrounded by its chants and traditions. And yet, it was never consciously meant to be a part of Ibeyi’s sound: “The album is one hundred percent us,” Naomi says. “We never thought about putting yoruba in our music, it just came naturally when we started composing. It’s part of us, I mean it’s in our ears — we grew up listening to yoruba, and we started singing it because our mother took us to the yoruba choir in Paris, so when we got to the studio we were like ‘oh my god there’s a lot of yoruba in our music!’ and we realised how important a part of our music it is. And I think that’s because it’s an important part of our lives.”
Yoruba culture was just one factor that Ibeyi’s family life played in their musical stylings, and aside from running compositional ideas past a musical mother and uncle (“it’s a big family affair!”), there is of course the influence of their late father, Anga Díaz, the percussionist perhaps best known for his work with Buena Vista Social Club. “We never thought about him when we were recording, but afterwards we realised [his influence]”, Naomi muses, “I think of course growing up in this family made us how we are. They always wanted us to love music before we were even doing it — I remember we used to listen to a lot of music and dance for hours, and we went to a lot of concerts. We learnt how to enjoy music from them.”
Given their transcendent, almost cathartic, debut, there is no hubris in the pair getting to work on future releases, and their tangible enthusiasm is quite endearing. “This is the good thing about music — you can go further and further and there’s no end,” says Naomi. “So I think our sound is going to change a little bit [over time] but it is always going to be —” “Ibeyi,” Lisa completes. And at the end of the day, that does perfectly sum them up. In yoruba culture those hallowed twins are seen to have a powerful synchronicity; Ibeyi look set to live up to that namesake.
Ibeyi’s self-titled debut album is out now on XL Recordings. Images by Maya Dagnino and Wunmi Onibudo, respectively.
Interview originally published in tn2 Magazine