Much about Ibeyi is haunting. The French-Cuban duo–comprised of twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz–combines English lyrics with evocative, religious chants in Yoruba, the language and faith imported to Cuba by West African slaves. In their single, “River,” they invoke Oshún, the Yoruba goddess of the river, and plead to cleanse their souls in her waters. “Oshún protects the river,” Lisa says. “You go to Oshún to wash your soul.” The result is a hypnotic, soulful song with electronic, hip-hop, and Afro-Cuban influences.
What at first seems like an unusual mixture of sounds actually makes for a harmonious expression of their identity. And that’s exactly what makes Ibeyi, the headliners behind a sold-out show tonight at the U Street Music Hall, so unique.
Born in Paris, the sisters spent their childhood bouncing between Cuba and France. Their father was Miguel “Anga” Diaz, a member of the Buena Vista Social Club who was hailed as a master of Afro-Cuban percussion. After his death at age 45 in 2006, the twins began considering a life in music. Naomi picked up the cajón, a percussive instrument, and Lisa started toying with lyrics. It was an unconscious decision to follow their father’s path. “He never told us how to play music,” Lisa says. “His legacy is that he wanted to do music that defined him. We did the same thing.” Soon enough, Ibeyi, which means “twins” in Yoruba, was born.
Through their music, the 20-year-old sisters express their history and origins. They speak French, Spanish, and English. They don’t speak Yoruba; rather, they sing it. The Yoruba faith has always formed a large part of who they are. “We were initiated in our mother’s womb,” Lisa says. “It’s our belief.” With their self-titled album, which was released earlier this year, they sought to unite two different worlds: their European and Cuban roots.
In the album, which Lisa began composing at age 14, the twins tell a deeply personal tale, divulging intimate details about family and themselves. “The man is gone / And Mama says there is no life without him,” they croon in the wistful song, “Mama Says,” about the death of their father.
These powerful emotions come alive in the jarring music video for “River.” In the four-minute video, two men submerge the women underwater. They only come up for air to sing. Shot in one continuous take, it took about ten tries before they nailed the timing. “It was really hard to do, but we knew it would be great,” Naomi says.
The twins are already hatching plans for a second album. It will be a slight departure from the first, but they promise it will be reminiscent of what they consider their “Ibeyi” sound. “We are composing every week,” Lisa says. “We want to go further and further and discover more about ourselves and our music.”
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