Ibeyi Mixes Music and Santería to Make Something Truly Original
The twins are fresh off an appearance on Beyoncé's Lemonade.
Photo by Flavien Prioreau
Typically, getting a peek into the inner worlds of a pair of 20-year-old artists is a task for someone with the patience of the Virgin Mother and the cleverness of Oscar Wilde. But twin sisters Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Díaz of the sonic duo Ibeyi make interviewing easy. They speak excitedly and without guile about their musician parents, their experience of the Parisian attacks, and the Afro-Cuban religion Santería, which inspires their music. Most recently, the two gained additional international attention with their appearance in Beyoncé's new visual album, Lemonade. But these young ladies don't aspire to Bey-level fame. Besides, the complexity of their music — in influence, intention, and lyrics — harnesses a more deeply cosmic energy than mainstream music might allow. Each song sounds like a prayer and feels like it has the power to change weather patterns.
Their Cuban father, percussionist Anga Díaz, who's known best as a member of the Buena Vista Social Club, passed away in 2006 when the twins were 11. That was when Naomi, the more reserved of the two, followed in her father's footsteps and took to percussion — cajón and, soon after, batá. Their mother is French-Venezuelan singer Maya Dagnino, who co-writes songs with Lisa-Kaindé — the chatterbox, primary vocalist, and pianist of Ibeyi.
The sisters were raised in the tradition of classical music. Lisa also studied jazz. "Music was always important in our family," she explains. "They didn't want us to be musicians, but they wanted us to enjoy music and to live music and to dance to music and to go to loads of gigs and to really enjoy it... I think our happiest memories were with music all the time."
In 2015, the two released their eponymous debut on XL Recordings, and the world got a little giddy over the delicately crafted tunes that feature elements of gospel, soul, electronica, hip-hop, and Afro-Cuban beats. Many of the songs explore the experience of mourning and pay tribute to their late father and their sister Yanira, who passed in 2013 from a brain aneurysm. The album, sung in English and Yoruba, echoed the island-rooted faith of their parents: Santería, also known as Lukumi. "It's more our belief than our religion," Lisa says. "We were initiated in our mother's womb." Ibeyi, in fact, are the twin orishas (Earth spirits or saints) in Yoruban and Santería mythology.
Orishas are the focus of a few of the duo's songs. Three specific ones pop up in the girls' music: Elegua, the trickster who opens doors in the faith; Oya, a female warrior who owns the cemetery gates and rules over the dead and the winds; and Oshun, the keeper of rivers, who's in charge of love and also represents womanhood. "I think at the time, we felt connected with those ones, and that's why we wrote a song for them. But, yeah, we feel connected with all of them actually," Lisa says. Many aspects of the religion help believers stay connected to the departed through ceremony and ritual. Lisa uses these tools to protect the memory of her father. "He's here," she states confidently when asked about him. "He's just here..."
She believes what keeps him with her is "not just the religion, but the culture too. The music too — the rhythms. This history of it. We feel that we are connected to him, of course, and connected to Cuba. Maybe that's why it's such a huge part of our
And though the faith so closely associated with their music has generally been secretive, Ibeyi is bringing it to the attention of many new minds. "In the U.S. or in London, there are a lot of Nigerians... When they come, they are happy, because they know," Naomi says.
Lisa cuts in: "They feel that, through us, they can connect to their roots." The sisters, though different in personality, are prone to completing each other's thoughts. "Yeah, they can connect to their roots," Naomi adds. "We're not teaching
"To learn still," Lisa interjects. "It's catharsis actually — it's exactly that. It's actually not just on Yoruba; it's with emotions and with everything. Our goals are not to teach people at all; this is not our goal. Our goals are to make the best music we can and to enjoy it and to feel good making it."
They say the more they perform their debut album (the only one Ibeyi has released thus far), the more it evolves in their minds. "It feels different," Naomi says, "because, for example, it has ghosts... We were playing the day of the attacks in Paris." Ibeyi was just about to go onstage only three hours outside of the capital city when they heard about what had happened. "It was awful," Naomi recalls.
"At the last minute, we had to call all of our friends," Lisa says. "Our mother kept our phones... After every song, she would say, 'OK, so this one says he's OK.' That was really hard. But at the same time, we felt that we had to sing. We felt that we had to play. It was important to play even more that day."
For Ibeyi, the meaning of those songs and the lyrics changed after that night. Though no one close to them was killed, the community Naomi and Lisa were so close to was rocked to its core, and the sisters felt the vibrations.
Ibeyi has stayed busy since then. This spring and summer, they're playing major festivals and shows around Europe and the U.S., like Coachella, Sasquatch, and Bonnaroo. "It's really exciting. It's really terrifying at the same time," Lisa admits. "You never know who is coming; you never know if they know you, or they are just coming to see who you are."
The sisters are working on songs with their mother for the next Ibeyi album. Lisa assures this will not be
Asked about their growing fame, Lisa is humble. "We're not Rihanna. Our lives didn't change at all. We still can go out to buy our own bread without putting sunglasses on." With music, her expectations are simple. "I think our biggest goal is not that much fame, but it's being there for a while — being able to make one, two, three more albums, five more albums. Making enough money to keep writing and to keep being creative, I think that's our biggest goal now."