London-based XL Recordings is on fire right now. The independent record label, headed by industry mainstay Richard Russell, has been behind some of the most significant indie rock/electronic releases of the last two years: From Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City to Jack White’s Lazaretto and more recently, FKA Twigs’ LP1. You get the feeling that Russell and company have their finger on the pulse of the music scene right now, and the label’s next big debut artist comes in the form of 20-year old French/Cuban twins, Naomi and Lisa-Kainde Diaz, better known as Ibeyi.
Ibeyi (pronounced ee-bey-ee) means “twins” in yoruba, the native language and culture of their Cuban father, musician Anga Diaz, who played percussion with Buena Vista Social Club and passed away in 2006. “Yoruba is a big part of our lives, our culture and Cuban culture” Lisa-Kainde says on a Skype call from their apartment in Paris’ Montparnasse neighborhood. But much like their father’s music, theirs is composed of elements from a slew of influences. Naomi explains that, “It was kind of subconscious that we did the same as him. He was mixing Latin jazz, hip-hop, a DJ, African music, jazz and we’re doing quite the same.”
Their music rings true to their yoruban heritage in both language as well as in the calls to spiritual “orishas,’ or deities of the culture. Ibeyi’s debut album (out Feb. 17 on XL) opens with a track called “Eleggua,” which pays homage to the yoruba orisha of communication. “Eleggua is the god of our father, and he’s the one that opens and closes the past.” They say together. “In every Yoruba ceremony, you start with singing and you end the ceremony singing for Eleggua. So for us it was natural to start with it and actually we start our concert every time with “Eleggua.”
Often times during our interview, they finish sentences in unison. It feels as if they’re channeling a unified message in the way they speak and complete each other’s sentiments fluidly. To that point, the first time we learned about Ibeyi, it was on the spellbinding video for “River,” where they take turns singing to Oshun, the orisha of love, fertility and rivers. They begin submerged in water, as if a baptism were taking place and come in and out of the water, to punctuate enchanting harmonies as the song peaks.
Lisa-Kainde tells the story of the video’s inception: “We were in the studio in London and Richard (Russell) wanted to introduce us to Ed (director Edwin Morris); he said ‘you would like him, would you like him to come over?’ So we said ‘yes’ and the next day he came over and told us he had two ideas. He said “I’m really excited and I have two ideas, but the first one you’re going to love it. I can’t hold it in any longer, I have to tell you.” When we heard it, we went “OH YEA!” hysterical and I said to him, let’s shoot it NOW. So we did it. It was perfect.”
When I ask them what the longest period they spent underwater in the video, they go back and forth adding and subtracting until they collectively say “Let’s say 30 seconds.” But the minutiae of the details of the video aren’t as intriguing as how the story begins to illustrate the relationship with their producer, Richard Russell. They often refer to him as “our amazing producer” and were so excited to tell me that they recorded the video and the entire album in Russell’s brand new London studio. “We are the first band [the first one! Naomi interjects] to record in this studio and we’re so proud.” Lisa-Kainde finishes with a smile.
Russell, meanwhile, seems to really pick and choose his spots when it comes to producing an album. Despite running the day-to-day operations at XL since 1994, his major production credits begin in 2010 with the last releases from Gil-Scott Heron (both I’m New Here and the Jamie XX remixed We’re New Here), Damon Albarn’s fantastic 2014 effort, Everyday Robots and co-producing Bobby Womack’s last two albums with Albarn. Although all of these projects were largely successful and Russell has had a heavy-hand in just about every major success at XL, Ibeyi present themselves as Russell’s first crack at producing a debut artist himself and thrusting them to the forefront of his label’s catalog. It’s palpable fast-lane treatment.
As Ibeyi describe their workings with the producer, everything seems so matter-of-fact. We speak about their cover of cult-rapper Jay Electronica’s “Better In Tune With The Infinite” and Lisa-Kainde and Naomi take turns jumping around at the story: “We were in the studio and Richard told us…’Ohhh, do you know Jay Electronica?’ and we were like “oh…no.” So he put it on and we both cried. He said ‘If you like this track that much, why don’t you cover it?” and I (Naomi) was like, ”I’m not gonna rap. But he said, “You don’t need to rap?” and this was one of the moments when I said ‘This guy is brilliant…of course i don’t need to rap” so I put a melody on it.”
In the video above, Naomi is on the left playing the Cuban box-like cajón. You can’t see her green eyes, but their sharp hypnotism is one of the more visible differences between the two. Her gravelly voice contrasts with Lisa-Kainde (on keys, as she often is) and her more direct, soul-based delivery. But when their voices blend, it’s nothing short of divine.
Anga Diaz was definitely a major influence for Ibeyi, but so was their French-Venezuelan mother. “We explain that it’s normal for people to think that our father was a big influence in our life and our music. But we lived with our mother and she was the one who would do homework with us and sing with us. I sing my first song to her. She was the one who was first here and helped us and supported us” Naomi says.
That ‘first song,’ is “Mama Says,” which was Russell’s introduction to Ibeyi and sounds like something out of Nina Simone’s library. I tell this to them and Lisa-Kainde jumps up to proclaim “I love Nina Simone! She is my goddess!” They’re uniquely schooled in the classics for 20-year-olds, but being born into a musically inclined family gives rise to that.
To introduce the sacred music of the Yoruba culture through Ibeyi can be “scary” at times, Lisa-Kainde says. “We don’t want Yoruba people to be offended and we want people to know that it’s a part of us. It was not like “Let’s take a bit of Yoruba and make it hype.” It came just naturally in the songs and came that way before we thought we’d make an album.”
“At the same time it’s cool, that all the people who don’t know that it’s Yoruba and now they can know and discover it,” Naomi adds.
Their approach to infusing Yoruban culture into their music is certainly one that respects tradition, and the mysticism of their story is never lost with these two. Everything has seemed to happen so serendipitously for Ibeyi. Meeting Russell after he heard them sing “Mama Says” on YouTube and then forging a relationship with one of the most influential figures in independent music today; the man who’s now responsible for presenting their unique and beautiful sound to the world, at exactly the point in his career when he’s beginning to truly explore his creativity as a producer. It sounds a little too perfect to be a coincidence.
Ibeyi’s self-titled debut is out Feb. 17 on XL Recordings.