Ibeyi: French-Cuban Twins Make Music Like No Other

Published on March 25th 2015

As Ibeyi, 20-year-old French-Cuban twins Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Diaz are captivating music fans around the world with their intimate, organic and highly original sound.

Born in Cuba and raised primarily in Paris, the sisters are daughters of famed Cuban percussionist Miguel ‘Angá’ Díaz, of groups including Irakere and Buena Vista Social Club. Their mother is French-Venezuelan singer, Maya Dagnino. The sisters took up music at 11, following their father’s passing in 2006.

Today, Naomi plays traditional Cuban percussion instruments, including the batá drum and cajón, while Lisa-Kaindé plays piano and sings. Their music fuses elements of French, Afro-Cuban and Yoruba folk songs with jazz, soul, hip-hop and electronics. Ibeyi - pronounced “ee-bey-ee” and translating to “twins” in Yoruba, a West African language spoken by some Afro-Cubans to this day, sing in multiple languages.

“Our music reflects what we are,” write the sisters Diaz by email, while on tour. “We are a mix of languages, cultures, religions, ways of seeing life, weathers, continents, skin colours, and social differences.”

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We have their mother Maya to thank for Ibeyi’s beginnings.

“One day when I was 14-years-old, my sister had gone out, I had done all my homework, my friends were unavailable, and I told my mom I was bored so she said I should write a song,” recalls Lisa-Kaindé. “I felt very good after writing, and that's how it started. She encouraged me a lot, although she is tough with lyrics.

“I think doing music and being able to express my pain with music saved me. Music makes you feel good, and it transforms your pain into something beautiful.”

The sisters studied music for more than a decade, with Naomi focused on percussion while Lisa- Kaindé took classical piano and, later, jazz vocal lessons. They toured France in their late teens, and were approached by XL Recordings after performing in a Paris jazz club. Ibeyi soon signed with XL, and the label’s founder Richard Russell produced what would become their recently released, self-titled debut album. The album is as personal as it is rhythmic and beautiful. Lyrics about life, loss and rebirth are paired with sparse, syncopated and incredibly rich sounds. It’s a haunting whole, with emotion pouring out of songs, including elegies for both their late father (“Think of You”) and elder sister (“Yanira”) who died in 2013.

Ibeyi are grateful that others now connect to their music.

“Of course we are surprised,” they affirm. “We did not plan any of this - recording, touring, meeting an audience. We feel blessed that people can relate to those songs, and can feel emotions. That's all we want to share.”

Intriguingly, while Ibeyi’s music is drawn from shared experiences, the sounds they actually create together reflect the twins’ pronounced differences as people. In many ways, they are mirror opposites.

“Ibeyi really exists from the confrontation of our two personalities, tastes and musical influences,” says Lisa- Kaindé. “Naomi is the fire and the rhythm; she likes hip-hop and electronic beats. I am the water and the melody; I like oldies, and voices. Nina Simone is my goddess.”

That said, when the two come together to perform, including this Thursday (March 26) as part of the Montreal Jazz Festival’s Jazz All-Year Round 2015 concert series, they are very much connected.

“We are somewhere else, and we are together [on stage]. We are never totally together in real life. It's the only place where we really are one.”

In anticipation, TD Music asked Ibeyi to tell us about 5 Cuban musicians they feel everyone should hear.

Angá Diaz – “The best percussionist, playful and joyous. He mixes modernity and tradition.”

Haydée Milanés – “The first singer I was a fan of.” (Lisa-Kaindé)

Harold López-Nussa – “An amazing pianist.”

Irakere – “The first band that mixed traditional Cuban music and jazz.”

Pablo Milanés – “One of the best songwriters.”