ibeyi-two

Not just Salsa: another face of Cuba in Ibeyi’s debut

This album starts like a spoken-sung prayer. A cappella, in an ancient and enchanting language that leaves me wondering: what are they saying? It’s Yoruba, a language that travelled from Nigeria and Benin to Cuba on slave ships 300 years ago. Ibeyi means “twins” in that language. And behind this name are two 20-year-old sisters born in Cuba and raised in France, Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Díaz.

Music runs through their veins. Their father was Anga Díaz, former percussionist in the legendary Cuban group Buena Vista Social Club. He died when the girls were just 11. Their mother, Maya Dagnino, is a French-Venezuelan singer. According to the twins, it’s her that inspired their compositions, teaching them the chants of their father’s culture, Yoruba, and encouraging Lisa-Kaindé’s songwriting.

The two sisters grew up speaking French, Spanish, Yoruba and English and attended classical music school. Naomi studied percussion, Lisa the piano. It’s the latter that writes the music and lyrics and sings, with a soul twist and a heartfelt deepness that makes me think of Billie Holiday, even though her voice texture is different. The former arranges the songs, enriching them with her love for hip-hop beats and electronica. The twins themselves effectively describe the result as “contemporary negro spirituals.” Their multilingual work blends Putumayo sounds with contemporary urban sounds, and their vocal harmonies add emotional thickness to the words.

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As the duo claims, being influenced by artists like the young English electronic music songwriter and producer, James Blake, was unavoidable for two girls who grew up in a city like Paris – although coming and going from their father’s country, Cuba, at least once a year.

Two tracks in their eponymous debut, released by major label XL, are dedicated to late members of their family: Think of You, which features a mixture of Spanish, English and Yoruba and a pervasive rhythmic element, was composed for their father; the melancholic, lulling ballad Yanira recalls their older sister, who tragically died in 2013 from a stroke.

“Will we meet in heaven?” sing the twins, while a rhythmic pulse reminds us of the sound of life support machines.  Even Mama Says deals with the theme of loss, describing the distressing solitude of a mother after the death of her partner from a daughter’s sincere point of view. Still, this LP is full of life, hope and strength. After all, it is scientifically proved that being spiritual and religious can enhance the brain’s resilience against depression. In Singles Lisa and Naomi address the Lord, while in the haunting River they sing about baptism and “washing souls”. Check out its video, it’s a quintessential representation of “life” by water.

We were waiting for this captivating, experimental album without even knowing.