Ibeyi—pronounced “ee-bey-ee”—is a Yoruban, Nigerian word that translates roughly to the concept of “sacred divinity of twins.” It is also the name that Lisa-Kaindé Diáz and Naomi Díaz have adopted for their self-titled debut album, released earlier this month on British record label XL Recordings. And what a debut it is.
These twin sisters—barely 20 years old—have managed to record an album that effortlessly weaves together the disparate strands of West African folk, Cuban jazz, soul, blues and contemporary R&B, into something greater than the sum of its parts.
One of the most striking features characterizing Ibeyi is its many apparent contradictions. Steeped in tradition and yet thoroughly modern, it is in many ways a reflection of the myriad influences that came to bear on the sister’s trans-Atlantic upbringing.
Born in Cuba, the girls grew up mostly in Paris, though they made frequent visits to the Caribbean. Their father was the acclaimed Latin jazz percussionist Miguel “Angá” Díaz, who played with the famous Buena Vista Social Club, in Havana. His spirit is alive and embodied in their music, which relies heavily on traditional Cuban percussive instruments such as the cajón and the batá. Naomi has said in interviews that she learned many lessons from her dad, but one of the most important was a love of rhythm.
But “Ibeyi” gets the heft of its emotional impact by drawing back to a much older Cuban musical tradition—one that stretches all the way back to West Africa. The Yoruba language, in which much of the lyrics are sung, is from a culture and religion brought to the Caribbean through the slave trade in the 1700s.
Many of these songs such as “River” and “Yanira” are essentially 21st Century versions of ancient Yoruban folk songs, while songs like “Ghost” are odes to the spirits of ancestors. Both sisters sing, and both have a bluesy earthiness to their voices that suggests wisdom beyond their mere 20 years on earth. Their frequent use of call-and-response-style vocals recall the “spirituals” sung by slaves as they worked in the fields.
The sound of modern club music—both of European techno and of American hip-hop and R&B—is “Ibeyi’s” other guiding light. The songs are crafted using cutting-edge style production (complete with synthesizers and a heavy emphasis on sub bass) that would hold its weight in a club against any contemporary pop music.
Ibeyi is about opposing forces, and it is this interplay between yin and yang, mind and spirit, old world and new that makes it so remarkable.