steeped in spirituality, themes of personal loss, and an intricate interplay between piano and afro-cuban hand drums, the self-titled debut from ibeyi should read as the definitive album from a pair of seasoned veterans. that lisa-kaindé and naomi díaz are instead just twenty years old and only beginning to hone their craft is stunning, and speaks volumes about the body of work they’ve created with ibeyi.
the parisian-born díaz sisters have deep ties to the afro-cuban religion santería – their moniker means “twin” in the religion’s language of yoruba – and many ibeyi songs contain titular references to various santerían spirits, collectively referred to as orishas. on “oya,” lisa-kaindé intones the spirit’s name in an almost chant-like fashion over a bed of droning, close-knit vocal harmonies bolstered by subterranean synthesizers. naomi’s percussion eventually kicks in, and the sisters harmonize for the duration of the song in a mixture of english and yoruba. “oya” almost seems to test the waters of the duo’s musical boundaries before coming to the conclusion that any restrictions are few and far between.
ibeyi is largely an amalgamation of old-school jazz and contemporary r&b, but it’s the personal spin put on each genre by the duo that makes the end result so invigorating. the díaz sisters’ father was renowned cuban percussionist anga díaz, whose premature death was the primary catalyst for his daughters’ foray into music. naomi’s almost-exclusive use of the cajón and the batá as rhythmic forces are a nod to him, and “think of you” is a stuttering, eerie elegy for their father, its title delivered repeatedly in meaningful harmony. lisa-kaindé’s smoky alto and plaintive piano playing are indicative of the french jazz clubs of yesteryear, and serve as a foil to her sister’s emphatic drumming, particularly when she’s fully exposed on tracks like “behind the curtain” or effortlessly interlocking with naomi on “ghosts.”
this embracement of personal and cultural history bleeds seamlessly into a fascination with contemporary musical elements. equally commonplace throughout ibeyi is a bevy of synthesizers and samples, largely provided by producer richard russell. on “river,” an early standout in the duo’s catalogue, piano and cajón are downplayed in favor of muted drum programming and a choir of vocal loops while “stranger / lover” inserts a slithering bass line and de-tuned synths into the typical sonic palate. these enhancements are often subtle, never dramatically shifting ibeyi’s sound, yet they add an incredible amount of depth and maturity to the young duo’s music.
nestled towards the back end of ibeyi is “yanira,” a second familial elegy for their older sister of the same name. it’s indicative of every characteristic found in the duo’s sound, from lyrical themes of spirituality and personal loss to the interplay of piano and cajón, yet the song seems to transcend the notion of merely being the sum of all of ibeyi’s parts. the triplet-based motif winds up like a music box, perhaps evoking childhood nostalgia as lisa-kaindé sings “all my dreams lead to you, queen of my thoughts” with a heartbreaking tone of emotional vulnerability, but the song’s simple chorus toes the line between lament and celebration of life. at the very least, “yanira” is a collective demonstration of deeply profound songwriting, and that the díaz sisters chose to bury their best and most meaningful piece of work so deep into their album speaks volumes of their self-awareness as musicians. ibeyi is certainly best-experienced in full; artistry this nuanced cannot be confined to a lead single.