It may only be February but it already feels unlikely that 2015 will produce an album that is so deeply and intrinsically indebted to the themes of family and belonging as the self-titled debut by Ibeyi. Over the course of 13 impressive tracks French-Cuban twin sisters Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Diaz offer a fresh and revitalising demonstration of the ability of music to offer emotional strength and help overcome bittersweet loss.
They may only be 19 years old but their lives seem to have already been disproportionately touched by incident, sadness, joy, tradition and a wide-eyed appreciation of the world. Born in Paris to a Venezuelan mother and Cuban father (Miguel ‘Angá’ Diaz, percussionist in the celebrated Buena Vista Social Club), they moved to Cuba for the early years of their life before resettling back in France. The death of their father in 2006 was the catalyst to the start of their musical career which seven years later would see them come to the attention of XL Recordings head honcho Richard Russell, courtesy of an online video of them singing Mama Says (a track also included here).
From the start of their debut album the chemistry they hold is immediately evident in the combination of Lisa-Kaindé’s piano playing and Naomi’s percussion (predominantly via the cajon, the box-shaped instrument played by her father). They are two of the key sounds of the album but it is their voices however that are responsible for much of the acclaim that has already been directed their way.
It is Lisa-Kainde that has the slightly more animated vocal style, evident on River and Singles, both examples of the clear-minded, contemporary spirituality that lights up the album. The presence of Yoruban language on the album is testament to the importance they attach to their background and ancestry (Ibeyi translates as ‘twins’ in Yoruban – an African dialect that made its way to Cuba and South America several centuries ago on slave ships arriving from the likes of Nigeria and Benin). Most of the lyrics are delivered in English but when they suddenly switch into Yoruban without any prior warning the effect is engaging and quietly thrilling.
Oya may have gained them early recognition, possibly due to the Björk-like shape, timbre and projection of the vocals but it is arguably tracks like Ghosts and Think Of You that better define the album, certainly in conveying its key messages (the former sees the line “we ain’t nothing without love” rise to prominence, displaying the emotional openness that runs throughout). Think Of You is the most overt reference to their father (“feeling our union and we think of you, receive your spirit and we think of you”) and a similar poignancy exists in Yanira, a track about their older sister who died in 2013 – the chant that floats in and out is one of the most tender and beautiful moments on the album. Behind The Curtain meanwhile reinforces their sense of child-like innocence that hasn’t been diminished by the personal adversity they’ve faced.
Yet, for all the sentiment the album also possesses some soulful, R&B/jazz-tinted tracks which provide balance. Stranger/Lover boasts sunshine-infused piano chords, Weatherman has a sharper feel (an example of the rich production brought to the album by Richard Russell) while Faithful has a real warmth in its percussive clicks, delicate piano runs and pop finish.
They may have been open in their love for the likes of Erykah Badu, Lauren Hill, Meshell Ndegeocello and Nina Simone but they also fit in well alongside more recent names like Andreya Triana, Fatima Bramme Sey and Mayra Andrade. Yet, on their debut they’ve confidently found their own voice – as we reach the a capella closing track Ibeyi (Outro) the most exciting realisation is that it feels like there’s so much more music and ideas for them to explore, so many other potential directions for them to head in. For now however, this remarkably mature and accomplished album will do just fine.