"This fire started burning" – Ibeyi interviewed
As they team up with Richard Russell for their transcontinental debut, the French-Cuban prodigies trace the entwined paths that led them here
Shortly after the sudden death of Angá Díaz, his twin daughters Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé packed bags and prepared to fly from Paris to Cuba for his hometown burial ceremony. Angá, a feted percussionist who once covered Thelonious Monk’s 'Round Midnight with seven congas instead of a piano, had travelled all his life and his family was keenly awaited back home. But when the girls arrived at the airport, officials zealous over Cuban borders denied them re-entry. Dejected, the 11-year-olds waved bye to their mother, Maya, and instead staged their own private memorial, moping the Parisian streets. They brought home a stray kitten with fiery red fur and named him Echu Mingua, after Angá’s 2005 solo album.
In the nine years since, Echu the cat has witnessed a quiet revolution in the sisters’ Montparnasse home. After Angá’s heart attack Naomi took up the cajón, the last instrument he had been learning, and Lisa-Kaindé became a skilled noir-soul singer, able to snap from velvet croons to volatile hollers. Their stylish pop blend of international roots – Yoruba folk, Latin American jazz, fraught R’n’B – radically departed from their classical schooling, and it swiftly turned heads. After early scepticism due to their age, they signed a deal with XL Records at age 19 last year, sweetened by the personal tutelage of boss Richard Russell. Not that his high guidance should snatch the spotlight. Start to finish, it transpires, the Díaz twins held the reins; when The Skinny praises the smashed-glass climax in the single, Oya, they light up: “We broke it!”
February heralds the duo’s debut album, Ibeyi. Their high spirits testify to its brilliance. Over Skype, Naomi is coolly enthused, jumping into her sister’s pauses and chain-smoking straights with French dedication. Lisa-Kaindé, presumably the younger one (the name Kehinde traditionally denotes a second-born twin), laughs loudly and often, and rocks back and forth when excited. Even outside the studio, the pair are never less than musical: their conversations are so vibrant and sing-songy you suspect they’d hold up over a Naomi beat.
"If you hear hip-hop around here, it comes from our house” – Lisa-Kaindé Díaz
Unlike the Díaz home, where family friends parade in and out, the recording of Ibeyi was deliberately intimate, with a strict ban on session musicians. As producer, Richard Russell was unpatronising but selectively assertive, obediently weaving in the odd hip-hop and electronic note as well as accentuating their Yoruba flair. “When we met Richard,” Lisa-Kaindé recalls, “this fire started burning. We realised that we really wanted to do a second album, and then a third one. He helped us to find our sound in ourselves.”
The songs, which Lisa-Kaindé began composing at 14, benefit from Naomi’s complex yet unfussy percussion. “One day someone came out with the idea of making an EP,” Naomi recalls. “And I said to Lisa, ‘You are not going to do this EP without me, darling.’” Both sisters sing in English, French and, most emphatically, Yoruba, their ancestral tongue from southwest Nigeria and Benin (Ibeyi means “twins” in the language). The redemptive current of Yoruba chants and militant dancehall is the record’s saving grace. One song, Yanira, is a stirring, conga-driven waltz that memorialises their older sister, who died in 2013 of a stroke. Another is Think of You: anchored by their father’s influence – it samples his string section and speaking voice – the song segues nostalgically between Yoruba and English over a juddering, digitally haunted beat. “We walk on rhythm and we think of you,” goes the chorus.
In the Cuban spirit, Angá Díaz had never been a man to dwell on his troubles – diminishing funds foremost among them. But even the beaming optimist must have felt butterflies when, in the mid 1970s, he left the tobacco-farming village of San Juan y Martínez for Havana, to fulfil his classical percussion scholarship at Cuba’s National School of Arts. Angá, whose own father was a saxophonist and clarinettist, had learned percussion beating his mother’s pots and pans before knuckling down at an arts boarding school near his hometown. But his crucial leg-up was pure luck.
The day Angá arrived in Havana, the school’s vanguard outfit, Opus 13, were down a conguero. Word spread of the young villager famed for his rhumba, and thus began a nine-year relationship with the group, during which Angá would adopt and adapt his predecessor’s five-conga trademark. He would later make his name touring the world with Irakere, before entering the pantheon playing with high-flyers like the Afro-Cuban All-Stars and Buena Vista Social Club.
The Díaz brood had been one of many displaced from Nigeria and Benin during the transatlantic slave trade. The 19th-century African diaspora skewed heavily towards Latin America and, prominently, Cuba. Yoruba culture followed close behind, and Ibeyi, who visit Cuba once a year, attest to its lasting magic. “There’s a lot of music,” says Lisa-Kaindé, beaming. “Everybody has something: everybody sings, everybody dances, they have rhythm in them – there are special energies. You can reach and talk to people who inspire you. Walking down the streets of Havana is mind-blowing.”
Montparnasse, just south of central Paris, is where the twins while away the rest of the year, in a low-key artistic neighbourhood. “French people try to be really quiet,” says Lisa-Kaindé. “It's not like Cuba, where everybody will listen to reggaeton, like, ‘Wooh!’” She shrugs, as if to suggest such let-downs are part and parcel of French life. “I mean, if you hear hip-hop around here, it comes from our house.”
The house, as it happens, is a marvel in itself. Full of art books, stray CD cases and Frida Kahlo prints and self-portraits (“her face is practically everywhere because, actually, we love her,” grins Lisa-Kaindé), it’s an eccentric celebration of their past. “I used to be ashamed,” admits Naomi, “not of our family, but of our house. Most of our friends have money, so the houses were all white, super-fashion.”
“Trendy, super light and black and la la,” adds Lisa-Kaindé.
“And it's like, Oh my god, when you go into my home it's like –”
“The smell of Africa. And I was ashamed.”
“But,” Lisa-Kaindé concludes, “when we used to invite our friends to our home, they liked it so much. Me, I never felt ashamed of my home, not at all. I actually think our family's kind of the best.” And the glue holding it together, they agree, is their mother.
While the young Angá Díaz was puncturing his parents’ kitchenware, many miles south over the Caribbean Sea there resided a displaced French girl named Maya Dagnino, whose parents had left Paris to raise her in Venezuela. Just as Angá grew up around music, Maya – a burgeoning photographer – was never far from art; she enjoyed the company of her father’s poetry and paintings, some of which survive chez Ibeyi. And while Maya does not have Yoruba blood – her heritage is French-Tunisian – she discovered the culture at a singing class aged 18, having settled in France, years before meeting Angá through a mutual friend at a Brixton Irakere gig.
Today, as we discuss the family tree, the house is abuzz with history. Occasionally Maya’s voice pierces the wall to correct her daughters’ narrative. Despite the twins’ routine arguments, a current of musical and family activity keeps the house vibe afloat. “There were always a lot of people in the house,” says Naomi. “A lot of joy and happiness.” “At first,” adds Lisa-Kaindé, “all our parents wanted was for us to enjoy music. We used to put on music and dance everywhere.” As the girls’ creativity blossomed, the family adopted a new team spirit, not least thanks to their uncle, a feverish storyteller with a knack for catchy lyric writing. “He’s not our mum’s brother,” clarifies Naomi, but, says Lisa-Kaindé, “He’s our heart-uncle. He fits so perfectly in our family, he's a family member. He's not like the old uncle that you don't wanna listen to.”
While Richard Russell’s cosign was key, it was Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo who orchestrated Ibeyi’s break. In 2013, Kidjo invited the duo to Festival Cotonou Couleurs Jazz, a rare international festival in Benin populated by Yoruba music fans. “As I walked on stage,” Naomi recalls, “I was thinking, This is a moment that's going to happen once in your life. The first time you are playing and singing Yoruba in front of a Yoruba crowd.”
“We were really worried,” says Lisa-Kaindé, “because we were going to sing a Yoruba that they can't understand. Because of course, when the slaves went to Cuba it changed a little bit.”
“But actually they were proud.”
“They were happy to see that Cuban people are carrying on Yoruba. They all want to go to Africa, and I think they were happy to see that. Being in Benin, it feels just like Cuba.”
In what way are Cuban and Beninese Yoruba similar? “What people have, is that they believe in the humanity,” asserts Lisa-Kaindé. “They have nothing, but they do believe in humanity. In Paris they have everything but they are scared. There, they are not scared. They share everything with each other, and they say, ‘We can do better.’”