Following a self-taught history lesson, Shuf discovered that Ibeyi (pronounced “ee-bey-ee” if you need a hand there) describes the spiritual Orisha associated with the twin matyrs Saints Cosmas and Damian, venerated for their voluntary medicinal work. Now, the word has acquired a new definition bound to one of the finest musical duos of 2015. Hailing from Paris via Cuba, the 20 year-old twins Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Diaz have converted a smorgasbord of influences and applied them to their eponymous debut, out now on XL recordings.
‘Ellegua (Intro)’ is the first we hear of the sisters and it is a self-assured start to the record. Exposing their vocal virtuosity stripped of any accompaniment, the intro sparks a curiosity in the listener before they are plummeted straight in to the dark mist of ‘Oya’. The track title originates from the female manifestation of God in the Yorùbá religion and like a higher being, lead vocalist Naomi commands the track with authority over a stirring bed of synthesised vocals. Slowly whipping up a fierce storm of tension as she cries ‘take me higher’, an auto-tuned interlude interjects before Lisa-Kaindé’s clattering percussive production literally collides with the track. ‘Oya' establishes this signature Ibeyi blueprint — blending the pureness of their organic incantations with artificial vocal samples and this is a crucial strand of their sound.
‘River’ is another fine example of this formula but employs more rhythmic elements that give the track a more dance-friendly feel. The duo flirt with sounds not too distant from label mate FKA twigs, oozing a contemporary cool. However, unlike the aforementioned the twins consciously keep their sound tightly contained before flipping back to their traditional roots with a vocal chant. It is not until ‘Think Of You’ — one of the many tracks on the record immortalising their father — that their Afro-Cuban influences can be fully heard. In chorus the sisters sing ’we work on rhythm and we think of you’ for the man who brought rhythm in to their lives through his percussive involvement in Buena Vista Social club. Driven by a piano melody which tiptoes to the beat and encapsulates this Cuban sound, the emotionally-propelled track opens and concludes solemnly with a wave of commemorative bata drumming. ‘Faithful’ also hosts a similar Latin lounge sound with an irresistibly smooth piano melody that would sit comfortably on a Hôtel Costes compilation.
For Ibeyi, their music is an incredibly malleable form of expression that provides an outlet for a whole host of emotions. From coming to terms with the loss of their father, the futility of their mother’s life as a widow (‘Mama Says’) and even the premature death of their sister (‘Yanira’), the sisters are able to wipe their tears and express a less melancholic side too. ‘Singles’ demonstrates this as Lisa-Kaindé playfully narrates the struggles of loveless folk going back home latest, cushioned by a bouncy beat. Somewhat a product of a cultural jumble sale, Lisa-Kaindé’s accent and her unique tone nestles beautifully between the voices of Lianne La Havas and Jhene Aiko.
Signing to XL recordings two years back, the pioneering pair’s lengthy time in the studio appears to have been worthwhile. Ibeyi succinctly capture their unique musical vision on their debut by bravely wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Through the amalgamation of traditional Yorùbá melodies and sharp-edged production, the curtains close on the eclectic album with another a cappella and a well deserved self-applause. Like the deity ‘Ibeyi’ has historically defined, this record will soothe anyone willing to embrace it.
Words: George Hemmati