The Musical History of Ibeyi

Words by Geoff Shelton
Photos by David Barron

If you can’t imagine an Elysian future where multiple cultures, diverse ideas, and a myriad of human and celestial energies have found harmony, then take some time to listen to the music of Ibeyi. Born and raised in Paris, with stints in Cuba, Ibeyi is 23-year-old fraternal twins Lisa Kaindé and Naomi Diaz. In Santeria, the Afro-Cuban, Yoruban religion they practice, Ibeyi are divine twins who bring joy to their followers. The word comes from the Lacumí pidgin dialect of the West African Yoruba language that arrived in Cuba with the slave trade starting in the 16th century. It is a name reflective of not only their literal reality, but also the importance of tradition, spiritual belief, and family that runs deep through their musical history.

These sisters weave musical traditions of Europe, West Africa, Latin America, and the US into a sacred blanket of sounds that is spiritual and danceable. We spoke with the twins through email about their goals for their sound: “We want our music to be 100 percent us,” they emphasized. “When we’re making and recording our songs, we live in between two cultures and four languages. We have family all over the world, and we both listen to different things. So, Ibeyi is a mix of all our influences. It’s about finding the balance between electronic sounds and organic sounds; the old Yoruban chants and the music we love today. Between Europe and the Caribbean. Between both our desires and inspirations.”

The drums are to thank for this musical pair. At age 18 their mother, Maya Dagnino, a French-Venezuelan singer and composer, began to study conga and learn the batá chants of Yoruban music prevalent in Cuba. This musical path led Dagnino from France to Cuba and thus to the man who would become the father of her children. He was the late Miguel “Angá” Diaz, a world-renowned, Grammy-winning, Cuban percussionist who gained huge recognition as part of the Buena Vista Social Club. “Our earliest memories of the drums are of the batás and congas that our father had at home,” they reminisce. “There are pictures of us around those drums throughout our early years. Everybody thinks the drumming and the love for Yoruba chants were only inherited from our father, but it was actually because of [our parents] that we got in touch with that part of our Afro-Cuban culture.”

 

Both sisters began studying music at the conservatory at age seven. “Lisa was studying classical piano, and I was studying classical percussion, marimba, and snare drums,” says Naomi. “My sister, mother, and grandmother told me that the day after my father died, at some point, I sat on one of his cajones [at age 11], and for the first time in my life, I started playing it. They told me that nobody moved and [they just] stared at me for a while. They felt it seemed as if our dad had been there with me. But sadly, I don’t remember anything.”

“Both [of] our parents brought us up with the assurance that nothing was impossible to achieve as women. Being a woman was not an issue, we thought we could do anything we set our minds to do just as any man would.”

Meanwhile at age 14, Lisa’s first song came to her through the advice of their mother. “I felt miserable, because Naomi was at a party, and I was not invited,” Lisa explains. “I did many things I would usually do, like finishing my homework, reading, making rings and necklaces with beads. Luckily, I had no computer at the time, because after doing all that, I still went to see my mom to tell her I was really bored and frustrated. She answered that I should write a song. I discovered then that finding melodies and eventually putting words on top of these melodies made me very happy. It became my way to create some beauty out of anything that I felt, witnessed, or thought. It became my way to feel alive and useful. Nothing compares to the joy of making a song.”

With the encouragement of their mother, Lisa would continue to write songs throughout her teenage years. At 17, the twins started talking about making a band. “I met my teacher, the great Peruvian cajon master, Miguel Ballumbrosio,” says Naomi. “I started to love the cajon as my own instrument. When Lisa was asked to do an EP, I told her she couldn’t possibly do it without me.”

When a YouTube video of the duo performing their song “Mama Says” came to the attention of Richard Russell, head of label XL Recordings, he quickly sought them out and brought them to London to record. Around this same time, Ibeyi faced another tragedy when their older sister Yanira passed away due to a brain aneurysm. The culmination of this artistic success mixed with personal loss resulted in the career-launching sounds and lyrics that made up their eponymous debut LP. Upon their arrival at SXSW 2015, they were one of the most buzzed about groups of the festival where they not only lived up to but surpassed all of the hype surrounding them.

Shortly thereafter, the twins found themselves on giant billboards for Apple Music, making cameos in the film for Beyonce’s Lemonade, and touring the world for two years. “We learned a lot!” exclaims Lisa. “We experienced all kinds of audiences, venues, and festivals—over 167 live dates. All that experience made us realize what we wanted for our next album.”

In the winter of 2017, Ibeyi returned to the studio in London with Russell to create their second LP and work on some of the lessons and experiences they took from the road into the new music. “We wanted a bigger sound, and yet we also wanted the songs to not lose the organic feeling we had on the first album with its mix of electronic and live percussion and voices,” they explain. “We wanted to be able to play festivals like Coachella and make people move, but [we] also [wanted be able to] play a more intimate venue—to be free to play the songs anywhere.”

 

About that balance, Lisa notes, “We always experiment in the studio with Richard. When we go to London, we already have certain rhythmic ideas on certain songs, but they don’t always work in the end. Everything is open. Some songs stay the way we wrote them at home like ‘Vale.’ Some change a lot in their melodies & lyrics; like ‘Transmission,’ and some are completely born in the studio, like ‘I Carried This for Years.’ ‘Me Voy’ is our first song in Spanish, and we invited the great La Mala Rodriguez to rap on it, so it was obvious we needed a Latin rhythm. We made an Ibeyi reggaeton song. Feminine, soft, and we hope, sexy.” Naomi adds, “For me, it’s absolutely amazing to work with Richard Russell, because he is a percussionist, too! During the recording, he and I often jammed in the studio for pleasure. Sometimes, we get good stuff that we can use out of those jams. On one jam, Richard played the Roland 808, which matches greatly with the batá cajon sounds and the cajon. We try things. There is no pressure. We have fun.”

Ash was released this past fall to further rave reviews for Ibeyi. The duo’s updated sonic palette and empowering lyrics struck a chord immediately as the #MeToo movement was taking the world by storm. That paired with xenophobic rhetoric from the US White House made the album timely. On the track “Deathless,” Lisa sings about an encounter she had with a racist policeman when she was 16. While “No Man Is Big Enough for My Arms” features the sisters singing the title repeatedly in harmony while samples from Michelle Obama’s speech during the Hillary Clinton campaign repeat: “The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls.”

“We’ve been raised by strong and independent women,” they note. “Our mother and our grandmother always worked and supported themselves on their own. Our father and grandfather in Cuba were the cooks of the house. Women in Cuba are very strong. So both our parents brought us up with the assurance that nothing was impossible to achieve as women. Being a woman was not an issue; we thought we could do anything we set our minds to do just as any man would. Growing up, we then discovered that women are still living under men’s laws all over the world, and that some women are still treated as objects that men can use as if they belonged to them. ‘Grab them by the pussy’ is still a sentence that some men dare to say publicly; thinking they’re funny. That’s a real shame. There’s been lots of progress around women’s rights, but we are still far from equality.”

Throughout Ibeyi’s short and successful career, it is clear that their family continues to be a driving and grounding force in their lives. Their mother now works as their manager and co-writes some of their songs. “She has been a solid support all the way from the beginning of this adventure. It’s a blessing to have someone you trust next to you, because you often need an external eye on what you are doing. Doubting is a part of the journey,” they say. “She knows us so well that we can have real honest conversations about artistic choices.” The words of their late father continue to resonate with them through the phrase “pa’lante,” a slang phrasing of the Spanish words “para adelante” meaning, “go ahead” or “go forward.” “Pa’lante for us means whatever happens, life must go on. We lost our father very young, then our sister at 18 one day before leaving on our first tour. We didn’t cancel the tour and [instead] sang all the shows with her in our minds and hearts,” the twins share. “Then we wrote the song ‘Yanira’ for her. That’s what ‘pa’lante’ means in our daily lives. Like we wrote in our song ‘Away Away,’ ‘I don’t give up, I feel the pain, but I’m alive.’”


This was originally published in Tom Tom’s Spring issue. Read the full version here.


 

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