Let The River Take Them: Ibeyi
“We are so lucky,” one half of French Cuban singing duo, Ibeyi, Lisa-Kainde Diaz tells me. “It was so easy.” She’s speaking of her and her twin sister, Naomi, who signed to XL Recordings earlier this year. Unlike artists who undergo a few different incarnations before finding a groove, reaching this point and their sound has not taken Ibeyi very long. Having now spent four months of the year recording in London, the girls are preparing to unveil their self-titled debut album on XL next year.
Still only 19 years old, Lisa and Naomi are the daughters of famed Cuban percussionist, Miguel “Angá” Diaz, who played with the Buena Vista Social Club, and Maya, a French Venezuelan artist and musician. Speaking to the girls via Skype from their apartment in Montparnasse, Paris—to which they have just returned after taping an episode of Later…with Jools Holland in London—it becomes quickly apparent, that, although they left the island at the age of 2 and their father died when they were 11, Cuba retains a great deal of influence over their music.
Ibeyi—pronounced ee-bey-ee—means ‘twin’ in Yoruba, the language of the Yoruba people spoken mainly in Nigeria and Benin and, historically, by many of the slaves transported from the same region to the Caribbean. “It’s a dead language in Cuba,” explains Lisa. “Only the Santería priests speak it. But it’s our culture. Religion and music are linked a lot.”
Their relationship with West Africa is clearly important to Ibeyi. As well as singing in Yoruba and English, they speak with eagerness about the region. “There are a lot of twins in Nigeria and Benin,” says Lisa. ‘In Yoruba mythology, twins are like God…. they [defeated] the devil.” The girls have already played so many concerts they struggle to recollect their first one, but enthusiastically recount details of an early performance at Festival Cotonou Couleurs Jazz in Benin to which they were invited to perform by Beninese grand chanteuse, Angélique Kidjo.
It was not until after this that a live performance of the girls singing their track, “Mama Says,” reached XL Records’ owner, Richard Russell. “At first, he looked at it but he didn’t want to because he just thought: They are young! But XL soon came to see us live in Paris.” The girls hadn’t heard of Russell, but when they realized that they listened to the music of most of his protégés, they were sold.
Of course, as teenagers growing up in Paris, Naomi and Lisa were exposed to a range of music beyond their parents’ roots. Their debut album is minimalist but a tapestry of the traditional and the modern. They namecheck Frank Ocean, James Blake, Jay Electronica and King Krule amongst other contemporary influences. Hearing the metallic, electro-sound adorned with the twins’ spiritual, soulful voices and Naomi on percussion and Lisa on piano, on their debut single “Oya,” it’s not hard to see why they found the normally arduous process of securing a record deal so easy. The video shoot for their latest single, “River,” may have proved to be a little more challenging, on the other hand. Over a continuous shot, the twins are filmed lying next to each other in a pool of water and are alternately submerged by burly male hands for 30 or 40 seconds at a time. The footage records them clearly gasping for breath as they surface and wincing with trepidation as they prepare to descend. “They always make female artists look so beautiful but there’s no heart, it’s not deep, it’s not visceral, it’s just easy. So I said to Ed Morris [the director], I want something that’s twisted,” laughs Lisa.
Naturally, much of the interest in Ibeyi has focused on Angá Diaz and his influence. Naomi even plays the cajón, the same instrument as her father. But the twins are as keen to highlight the importance of their mother, whose father also lived for 15 years in India and gave all his children Indian names. “We always had music on in the house growing up”, says Lisa. Her use of the past-tense to discuss her childhood and the self-assurance with which the twins discuss artists from multiple continents—from John Cassavetes and Xavier Dolan to Francis Bacon and Frida Kahlo—makes it easy to forget that Ibeyi are only 19 years old. It is only when their ginger tomcat, Echumiggua, interrupts our conversation to giggles of excitement, that their youth becomes apparent. Echumiggua means ‘God’ in Yoruba. Africa, Cuba, France, Venezuela, India—Ibeyi truly have some heritage.
Lisa-Kainde and Naomi wear dress by YOHJI YAMAMOTO,
top by CEDRIC CHARLIER, tights by FALKE and their own jewelry
Photographer: Emanuele Fontanesi
Stylist: Guillaume Boulez
Special thanks to Marie Beltrami