When twins Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz—the duo known as Ibeyi who fuse traditional Afro-Cuban influences into neo-soul spirituals—took the stage at Washington DC's 9:30 Club at the end of September, it was as if they were trying to highlight their differences. Lisa, her afro puffed to perfection, was draped in a white, floor-length gown, while Naomi was clad in urban-chic black from head to toe. They take their recording name from the Yoruba—one of the larger ethnic groups in West Africa—word for twins but it's their music, not their kinship, that has brought them closest together. The two women had grown apart as they’d got older—pursuing careers in teaching and art respectively—but when they were presented with an opportunity to make a record, they saw it as a chance to rebuild their relationship.
Born and now primarily based in Paris, the sisters spent their early years in Cuba, the hometown of their father, percussionist Angá Díaz, who is best known for his work with Buena Vista Social Club. On their debut, self-titled album, they trace their roots beyond their Franco-Cuban upbringing to the Yoruba people who are mainly based in Nigeria, Benin, and other parts of West Africa. Growing up, they were heavily exposed to Yoruba music and customs—a connection that was directly inherited on their father’s side and further instilled by their mother who is French-Venezuelan but learned of the culture as a teen. Ibeyi pulls heavily from Yoruba culture, blending chants and prayers with drums that explicitly demonstrate Cuba’s link to Africa. In those moments, their music has a pronounced ancestral element to me: it inspires a feeling of latent familiarity, as if I, as part of the African diaspora, have also inherited this culture. They sing in Yoruba, French, Spanish, and English, demonstrating their rich heritage and desire for listeners to disregard language and cultural barriers; to choose to feel those things that can’t be understood.
Ibeyi relies heavily on percussive components, and this is where Naomi excels. She plays batá drums as well as the cajón, a percussion instrument their father played, which she only picked up after his death. Lisa handles most of the vocals and the piano or, as Naomi puts it, “she’s the melody, and I’m the rhythm.” Their roles fall perfectly in line with their respective orishas—deities in the Yoruba religion that are said to claim sons and daughters prenatally and according to destiny—Naomi is the daughter of Shangó, the god of thunder, and Lisa is the daughter of Yemaya, the goddess of the sea. Prior to their Washington DC show, Ibeyi sat down with The FADER to talk about getting love from Beyoncé, their musical upbringing, and how making an album helped them find their way back to one another.
What kind of statement were you looking to make with this album and why?
Lisa: We didn't really realize it until the end, but we wanted to do an album that was an homage for our father and our sister and our family. It was to give hope to ourselves and to other people.
Naomi: You know, we lost people, but we're still here and life is beautiful. I think people can connect with it.
Lisa: But I think to start, it was really to build a relationship between the two of us and be able to communicate together.
How was your relationship prior to all of this?
Lisa: We don't understand each other.
Naomi: We don't understand each other on the...
Both: Big subjects.
Naomi: We don't have the same way of living life. She's more calm, I'm more crazy. I call her "granny"! [Laughs] It's not bad, but we have two ways of thinking. So sometimes it's complicated, but at the same time, when we play together, it's magical, so that's why we do it.
Lisa: We were really close as children, but when we became teenagers, we went separate ways. So I think when I had to make the decision of am I going to do it or not, in my head I thought that may be our way to meet again and do something that will be important and that will be beautiful together again.
People don't seem to think of twins as individuals.
Naomi: They think like that, but we'll say that we argue and then they think we argue all the time. So they do...
Lisa: Basically the opposite. They love it. I think they love the fact that we're not lying about it. We're not saying it's so magical. It's hard. Working with someone else is always hard.
Naomi: With family is hard. With your sister—your twin sister—it has to be hard.
Lisa: But at the same time, it is magical that we can do it together. Today, I'm so happy we did because it is a link between us. We did an album together. That's something really important.
“The funny thing is that here, when we go to radio, they don’t know where to put us because we’re Latinas, we’re white, and we’re black. And we’re like, we don’t care. Put us everywhere.”—Naomi Diaz, Ibeyi
I really appreciate the sense of pride you have in your cultural background. How were those connections created, particularly with Yoruba culture?
Naomi: We've listened to Yoruba music since we've been born. But there's not only salsa [in Cuba]. There's a lot of Yoruba culture. You can see ceremonies everywhere.
Lisa: We were 16 and our mother took us to her Yoruba choir in Paris. I think connecting to your roots is exactly that—a connection. You just have to go and find it. We are really lucky because our mother took us.
Naomi: And we learned to sing those songs.
Lisa: We might have never connected that strongly with Yoruba without her. We might have just lived our life. Maybe one of the reasons people are far away from their roots is that they don't know how to start. They don't know where to find those roots. I don't think it's because they don't want to connect with it.
How do you hope your music translates to people who may not be familiar with these particular cultural aspects?
Lisa: You don't need to know where Yoruba comes from. You don't need to know Yoruba. I think people connect with our music because they connect with it. It's just about feeling it or not feeling it, and I like that. That's something I love about Yoruba—you don't need to understand the words to feel it.
Having a diverse cultural background, how does race, ethnicity, and xenophobia play out in your lives?
Lisa: We're proud to be white, and we're proud to be black, and we're proud to be Latinas.
Naomi: I think it's so cool to have so many different cultures. The funny thing is that here, when we go to radio or something, they don't know where to put us because we're Latinas, we're white, and we're black. And we're like, we don't care. Put us everywhere.
Lisa: I think the sad thing about America is it's really divided. And I get that—you have to fight to say to America that you are here, but I do believe the future will be everybody mixing with everybody and united.
Naomi: I think if you have more cultures, you can more understand people and where they come from and why.
Lisa: You're tolerant and you're open. Sometimes it breaks my heart—I would love for people to be okay with everybody.
Beyoncé recently showed you love. How did that feel?
Naomi: We were in Germany. It was really early, and we were in the airport...
Lisa: With all of our suitcases and our gear.
Naomi: I was looking at my phone and there was this Instagram, and I was like, what are you talking about? I was shocked. A weird feeling.
Lisa: And the thing that was really weird was that my friends were sending me texts like, "Do you know her? Are you going to her house? Your life is so glamorous." It was five in the morning, we were toting the gear, it was cold; we wanted to cry. I couldn't get on the wi-fi [laughs]. It was the complete opposite between reality and this thing that came out of nowhere, but we were so happy. It definitely made a difference.
Naomi: I hope we can meet her one day.
Your father, of course, was a musician, and you've said your mother is a musician without an instrument. It seems music was a natural course. Did your parents encourage or influence that?
Naomi: Actually when we were little, we didn't live with him because he was always on tour so we were seeing him on holidays. At one point, he lived in Barcelona so we were going to [visit him], and our mom was like, "They have to practice 30 minutes a day." He was like, "You have to play," and I was like "I don't want to," and he was like, "Okay, we're going to do [something else.]"
Lisa: He never pushed us to do music. Our mother, she was the one who took us to music schools. She was sure that making music—not being musicians, that's something completely different—was going to be a strength for us and make us better human beings. And she was actually right. That made me a lot happier in life being able to create.
Naomi: Our parents, when we were little, always took us to see concerts. We loved listening to music.
Lisa: Music has been important in our lives. All my friends are like it was obvious. But first, it was not obvious. Naomi always says if our father was alive, we would not have created Ibeyi.
Naomi: I started playing cajón the day after my father died. So I'm thinking, maybe—because we don't know and will never know—if he was still alive, maybe I wouldn't have touched the cajon. And I would be doing...I don't know what.
Lisa: And without her, I would never have pursued stages and this crazy life. I was so scared. I'm still scared. It's a really crazy kind of life. And people think that artists or musicians have a really glamorous life, but I've learned that it's 99% labor. It's something exciting at the same time, but it's 99% work and 1% glamour. You never stop learning or working on what you're creating. It's not you're finished at 8, and you go back home—you're never finished. It's always here.
Naomi: It's not always all about your art. It's also about money. Obviously, we don't want to tell people it's a hard job because we're here for them to enjoy and to dream.
“I think spirituality is just about being in the moment. This movement, this way you breathe. The moment when the pencil touches the paper.”—Lisa-Kaindé Diaz, Ibeyi
How will you balance making music you know will bring in money and making the music you want to make?
Lisa: I'm going to be sincere with you—the consideration now is how to make music that we will still enjoy selling. The thing we are afraid of doing something that doesn't look like us. We're going to try to be smart and take the time to make sure the music we're making is 100% us.
Naomi: Yeah, because you really can become confused. You can lose yourself. We're happy to do what we want to do, but at the same time, we want to feed ourselves and one day have a family. We're working to make sure that if we do something, even if it's different, it will still be Ibeyi.
The album has a sense of mourning, though not necessarily sadness, throughout. Was that intentional?
Lisa: I think I was conscious that music was maybe a way to connect with my father and with people who were gone. I was conscious about that. But I would not think that it's just the album. That's my way to connect with myself and people that are still alive. I think music, especially, is just about that—connecting.
What about spirituality? That definitely seems to be a recurring theme.
Naomi: We never thought about doing an album that was spiritual. It's weird for us to talk about..
Lisa: It was really natural. We didn't really think about it that much. And for us, everyone is spiritual. All of our family and a lot of our friends are spiritual. And we do feel like art..
Naomi: ...is spiritual.
Lisa: I think spirituality is just about the moment—being in the moment. Not in the future or the past but right now. Art is about that. It's about how you feel in that instant. The words that you're saying at the second you're saying them. This movement, this way you breathe. The moment when the pencil touches the paper.