Ibeyi On Spirituality And Joy In 'Ash'

Oct 4, 2017
Originally published on October 4, 2017 8:39 am

Lisa-Kaindé Díaz and Naomi Díaz, the French-Cuban twins who make up Ibeyi, have a knack for blending disparate sounds together.

Perhaps it comes from their cultural background; their father was Cuban and their mother was French-Venezuelan, resulting in a childhood that — they say — fell "between two worlds that were totally different." The sounds of their youth have found a way into the music they make — an intoxicating blend of hip-hop, electronica and traditional Yoruba.

The sisters burst onto the music scene in 2015 with their eponymous debut. The leading singles, "River" and "Oya" defined their sound: Afro-Cuban percussion, complex, yearning vocals and a touch of spirituality. Ash, their latest record, continues in that vein and adds deeper explorations of womanhood and, at times, racism.

In an interview with NPR's Alyssa Edes, the Díaz sisters speak about their heritage and the themes that shaped their latest record. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

Alyssa Edes: We hear a lot of Yoruba in this album. For people who don't know, can you tell me what it is and why do you sing in it?

Naomi: Yoruba comes from Nigeria and Benin: When the slaves were shipped to Cuba, the culture remained. It's a culture, it's a religion, it's our belief.

Lisa-Kaindé: We sing in Yoruba because those songs talk to us. When we were 16 our mother took us to a Yoruba choir, and actually the funny part is we didn't want to go, but when we arrived there we heard the songs for the first time we fell in love with them and it just speaks so deeply to us. And every night we get to sing those chants, every night we get to hear the thousands of people that sang those chants before us, and it's really special.

You said Yoruba is also a religion; are either of you religious?

Naomi: Yoruba, it's our belief. So we believe in it. Lisa, she's the daughter of Yemaya, who is the sea, and I'm daughter of Shango, who is thunder. And it's really us. Our characters are really like that.

Lisa-Kaindé: In the Yoruba religion, you are chosen by an orisha, which is a divinity. And Naomi was chosen by Shango, who is the orisha of the thunder. And I was chosen by Yemaya, who is orisha of the sea. And it's, like, in our DNA. When we were little, I used to sing in front of the sea a Yoruba song, and it was the only one I knew at that time. And so when my Babalawo, [a priest], told me, "You're daughter of Yemaya," it all made so much so sense.

Your experiences sound like they're probably very different from a lot of the people that you're around in France and London and in the U.S. Do you ever feel like an outsider where you are?

Naomi: Sometimes we can feel like outsiders, but it's good to not be like everybody [else.] At the same time, we take a lot from people and people can take a lot from us. That's why we love music — because we share and it doesn't matter where you're from, if you don't speak the same language, you understand each other.

Lisa-Kaindé: Even when you feel like an outsider, you can just go back to your house and write a song that people will like. So I think, thanks to music, you're never totally alone. And the truth is, we were never totally alone. We are twins and we have an incredible family and we were surrounded by love, so at least we had each other and we had music. We could come back home and listen to Nina Simone or listen to Coltrane or listen to our dad's music and hug our mother, and everything was better.

One of your songs, "Deathless," seems to speak to that. Can you tell me about the experience that inspired it?

Lisa-Kaindé: "Deathless" was inspired by me meeting a racist policeman when I was 16. I got arrested by this policeman and he said, "Do you smoke?" And I said, "No." And he said, "Do you drink?" And he would come closer after every question, and I said, "No." And he said, "Do you use drugs?" And I said, "No." And he said, "Are you f****** kidding me?" And then he took my bag and he threw it, and all my things were on the floor. And he froze for a second because he saw that I had a book. I think I was reading War and Peace, and I had Chopin. And I think he thought, "Oh, she might be intelligent and have something in her head." So he just gave me my empty bag and left.

To be "Deathless" means that there's no end. Someone wrote, "They buried us, but they didn't know we were seeds." It means there's no end to love, there's no end to joy, there's no end to music.

Web intern Steffanee Wang and editor Vince Pearson contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to a story of two musicians turning pain into triumph.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AWAY AWAY")

IBEYI: (Singing) Away, away...

LISA-KAINDE DIAZ: I am Lisa-Kainde.

NAOMI DIAZ: I am Naomi Diaz.

LISA-KAINDE DIAZ AND NAOMI DIAZ: And we are Ibeyi.

MARTIN: Ibeyi is a neosoul duo that mixes Afro-Cuban beats with electronic textures. Lisa and Naomi are twins. They grew up between France and Cuba. And their new album is a celebration of cultural diversity, which they feel is under attack.

L. DIAZ: "Away Away" is the song that we created to make us feel better. We wanted to do an optimistic song. We wanted to sing something that would give joy to people, and we needed that song to feel alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AWAY AWAY")

IBEYI: (Singing) I don't give up, I don't give up, baby. I feel the pain, feel the pain. But I'm alive. I'm alive.

L. DIAZ: I think what triggered "Away Away" was that feeling of powerlessness, that feeling that - you're so small. And that's true. We are all small. But doing something is valuable.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AWAY AWAY")

IBEYI: (Vocalizing).

L. DIAZ: "Deathless" was inspired by me meeting a racist policeman when I was 16. I got arrested by this policeman, and he said, do you smoke? And I said no.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATHLESS")

IBEYI: (Singing) He said, he said...

L. DIAZ: And he said, do you drink? And he would come closer at every question. And I said no. And then he said, do you use drugs? And I said no.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATHLESS")

IBEYI: (Singing) Do you smoke? What's your name? Do you know why I'm here?

L. DIAZ: And he said, are you [expletive] kidding me?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATHLESS")

IBEYI: (Singing) She was, she was innocent.

L. DIAZ: And then he took my bag, and he throw it, and all my things were on the floor. And he froze for a second because he saw that I had a book. I think I was reading "War And Peace," and I had Chopin. And I think he thought, oh, she might be intelligent and have something in her head. So he just gave me my empty bag and left.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATHLESS")

IBEYI: (Singing) Whatever happens, whatever happened.

Oh, hey, we are deathless. We are deathless.

L. DIAZ: To be deathless, it means that there's no end. Someone wrote, they buried us, but they didn't know we were seeds. It means, there's no end to love. There's no end to joy. There's no end to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF IBEYI SONG, "DEATHLESS")

N. DIAZ: What we want people to get with this album is joy, is for them to be more open-minded.

L. DIAZ: For them to be awake, to be alive.

N. DIAZ: Like...

L. DIAZ: Actually, we want to give to people what we want to give to ourselves with that album. We wrote those songs for ourselves. We need all of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRANSMISSION/MICHAELION")

IBEYI: (Singing) Transmission, transmission, transmission...

N. DIAZ: In this song, we also have our mom reading texts that Frida Kahlo wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRANSMISSION/MICHAELION")

MAYA DAGNINO: (Speaking Spanish).

L. DIAZ: Which means, my feet, why do I want them if I have wings to fly? First of all, it means that we want something, but sometimes, we don't need it because we have something else. But it also means that you got wings. We all got wings. We can't see them, but they're there. They're there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRANSMISSION/MICHAELION")

IBEYI: (Singing) Suddenly, strange and quiet...

MARTIN: Ibeyi's new album is called "Ash." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.