I fell hard for the 20-year-old twin sisters of Ibeyi last summer, when they released the entrancing, unsettling video for their single “River.” The way that Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz mixed deep soul with Afro-Cuban tradition and electronic textures resulted in one of the best new cuts I’d heard in ages. Ever since, I’ve eagerly awaited their self-titled full-length debut — and that impatience has been rewarded. The Diaz twins create a world of intoxicating beauty, in songs that are smart, sweet and emotionally cracked wide open.
Not surprisingly, the Parisian sisters possess beautifully matched voices, though Lisa-Kainde takes the lead on vocals and plays piano, while Naomi brings in the sound of two Afro-Cuban percussive instruments, the cajón and batá. Producer Richard Russell (who’s also the chief of their label, XL) adds the crackling energy of synths and samples.
The Diazes’ Afro-Cuban heritage is hugely important to them; it’s the guiding force of their debut on many levels, particularly in their evocations of the Afro-Caribbean religion Santería. They begin the album with “Ellegua,” a song to the Yoruban orishaspirit of the same name — he represents the beginning and end of life, and is always the first orisha greeted in any ceremony. (Without his blessing, nothing else can proceed.) Religious references and Yoruba-language chants swirl around the entire album, with songs steeped in references to various orishas, including Oya, Aggayu, Oshun, Shango and Yemaya.
Afro-Cuban religion isn’t the only cultural frame of reference at play here. Born in Paris, the Diaz women have lived there for most of their lives, and it’s easy to hear the echoes of French hot jazz in the metallic ring of Lisa-Kainde’s voice. Plus, the Diaz twins are the daughters of the incredible Cuban percussionist Anga Diaz, who died of a heart attack at 45 when the girls were just 11; his spirit clearly nourishes their own work. In “Think of You,” the Diazes summon their father’s memory and, more directly, his sound: “We walk on rhythm,” they sing, heartbreakingly, “and we think of you.” There’s also a second elegy on the album, “Yanira,” in honor of their deceased older sister, a song underpinned with a gorgeous, haunting Afro-Cuban rhythm drummed out on the batá.
If this is the kind of sonically stunning, wildly inventive work that Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz are producing on their first album, when they’re just 20, just imagine what can we expect in the years ahead. I can’t wait to hear all of it.