Ibeyi: the French Cuban teenagers about to take the music world by storm

Teenage twins Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Díaz are behind one of 2015’s most striking debut albums


There’s quite a sister act happening on the other end of this Skype call to Paris. French-Cuban twins Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Díaz are smiling broadly at the camera and gabbing away about the music they make as Ibeyi.

Lisa-Kaindé is on the left-hand side of the screen and Naomi is on the right, but their voices soon blend into one. One sister begins a sentence, the other sister adds the middle before the first sister takes over to deliver the last word.

That natural empathy between them can also be found on their self-titled debut album. Ibeyi is a collection of vibrant, sensual and spiritual sounds and songs informed by the Yorùbá culture of Nigeria and Benin in west Africa.

The young Diaz twins first heard these traditional chants, sounds and prayers, originally brought to Cuba via slave ships, from their mother, who grew up singing them. When they added these ancient incantations to a modern blend of piano, blues, soul, percussion and electronica, a different sound was cast. It may be odd to hear such old, dusty sounds played and sung by two teenagers, but it’s clear this music has resonated deeply with the Díaz sisters.

“It was really important for us to have those Yorùbá sounds in our music,” says Lisa-Kaindé. “They are part of who we are, they are part of how we grew up, so it’s really natural for these prayers to be in the songs.

Yorùbá influence

“When we started composing, the Yorùbá influence was very natural so we just went with the flow. When we were growing up, it was obvious to us how important and unique the Yorùbá culture was and what it meant to us more than rock and pop.”

Then, there’s the not insignificant matter of how twins are regarded in Yorùbán culture. “Twins are really important in the Yorùbá villages because of mythology and legends,” says Lisa-Kaindé. “The are regarded as blessed and there are really elaborate rituals around them.”

Lisa-Kaindé points out that their use of Yorùbán traditions is a case of them using their own culture. “Some people might say that we are using Yorùbá to make money for ourselves, but that’s so not true. This is my heritage and it’s important for the two of us because we believe in it a lot.

“We are taking religious songs and putting them in our music which is spiritual. We are doing this because we love this music, we believe it is our identity, we feel that it’s our legacy and it’s a way to connect with our ancestors. It is a big part of us.”

Ibeyi: River

Yorùbá culture is not the only trace from the past on the album, as their father’s Cuban heritage also played a part in their musical development. Their father was the percussionist Miguel “Angá” Díaz, who played with the Buena Vista Social Club. He died in 2006 and there’s a song Think of You on the album in his memory.

“We grew up in Paris, but we lived in Cuba for two years and then visited Cuba once a year on holidays,” says Naomi.

“It’s a very spiritual place and we could sense from an early age that there was something very special about Cuban culture. When we were in Dingle for Other Voices last year, we could feel something similar in how people reacted to music.”

Their father’s influence on their music was passive. “He never said to us that we had to do music or work with this,” says Lisa-Kaindé.

“He wanted us to do what we felt happiest with so there was no pressure from him.”

It’s clear that a lot of the influence behind Ibeyi the musicians came from their mother, Maya Dagnino, a French Venezuelan singer and musician who now manages the band.

“She was the one who encouraged me to write songs,” says Lisa-Kaindé. “With the songs on the album, some I wrote with my family. My mother wrote a lot of lyrics and my uncle wrote a lot too with me, so it’s like a family project.”

Traditional grooves

But perhaps the most fascinating part of Ibeyi’s set-up is the music that ebbs and flows through their songs. On the one hand, you have those centuries-old traditional grooves which are full of deep meaning and context and which anchor them to their family’s past.

On the other hand, though, the twins are teenagers who grew up in a modern city and thus have a keen understanding of how modern pop and electronic music work. Hearing them bring these two strands together is quite an experience.

To Naomi, this is totally natural and she seems surprised at how much people remark on this.

“It is who we are,” she says. “We’re not putting this on. You cannot have Ibeyi with having both of these sides. They’re what complete us.”

XL marks the spot A label with a rep

Ibeyi’s debut album is released on XL, Richard Russell’s always interesting London-based imprint. What’s notable about XL is that it has the good luck to be home to both commercial successes (come on down Adele and bring your third album with you), and critical darlings (the world continues to wait for Jai Paul’s debut album proper).

The label’s reputation can be seen via releases by The Prodigy, Basement Jaxx, The XX, The Horrors, Vampire Weekend, Jungle, FKA Twigs and M.I.A. among others. It’s also the label responsible for late career renaissances from Gil Scott-Heron and Bobby Womack.

Ibeyi are not the only newbies on the XL roster for this year. There’s also Haiti-born, Montreal-raised producer Kaytranada, Las Vegas future pop maestro Shamir, singer-songwriter Lapsley and Diagonal Records’ founder Powell. XL have also just signed East India Youth, whose second album Culture of Volume is set for release in April.

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