IBEYI: SOMETHING THAT IS BEYOND EARTH
photography by eric coleman
In the mythology of Yoruba, Ibeji were the twin children of Oshun, the orisha of water and the ocean, raised by Oya, the protective warrior orisha who guards the underworld. The Ibeji are the patron orisha of twins and their birth is considered an auspicious blessing that brings protection and happiness to those around them. There is even a Cuban tale that tells how the Ibeji twins outsmarted and defeated the devil with their drumming. Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz’ music as Ibeyi stems from the influence of their late father Miguel ‘Anga’ Diaz and the Yoruban way of life they’ve had since birth. Their self-titled debut EP on XL Records is deceptively minimal. The songs are personal and powerful—they stick with you long after pressing play. It’s easy to forget the twins behind this poignant work are barely in their 20s. Skyping from their Parisian home, the twins spoke with genuine enthusiasm, passion and a bit of teenage shyness on family, balancing Yoruban themes in the music industry, cinema and rap music. They perform on Wed., Apr. 1, at Hollywood Forever. This interview by sweeney kovar.
Hello! Do you guys speak Spanish?
Naomi & Lisa-Kainde: Yes!
Awesome. Fantastico. You can answer anything in Spanish if English is difficult. What was your childhood like being both French and Cuban?
Lisa-Kainde: It was great. We had two different visions of life. We had al ot of culture and it was a good thing. We would visit Cuba once a year. When we used to talk to Cubans about Paris and to French [people] about Cuba, people didn’t get it. Of course it was strange but it was beautiful too. I think it’s a great opportunity—not opportunity, it was great luck to have those two worlds [growing up].
In everything I’ve read so far on you guys, most everyone mentions your father, Cuban percussionist Miguel ‘Anga’ Diaz—but I’ve also heard you guys mention your mother just as often. How has your mother encouraged the two of you creatively?
LK: There is so much to say. What Naomi said in our last interview, and I thought it was amazing—she said people never saw us as twins because we are so totally different. We’re really, really different. The only two situations where people see us as a group—
Naomi: —is when we are with our mother.
LK: It is when we are with our mother we are three against the world. I thought that was a beautiful thing to say.
N: Our mother is amazing.
LK: She is the one that can … que nos trae juntas, que nos une. [who brings us together, who unites us.]
Dicen que son muy distintas, ustedes dos—en que formas dirian que son diferentes? [You say you are very different—in what ways would you say you’re different?]
N: En todo. [In everything.]
LK: La visión de la vida, totalmente diferente. Los actos, totalmente diferentes. [Our vision of life, totally different. Our acts, totally different.] She is more instinctive than me.
N: She’s more reflective.
LK: I’m always thinking about what I should do or not do, or if something is a good thing to do or not. She’s like, ‘Let’s go!’
Who was born first out of the two?
LK: Only two minutes before—this is nothing.
What was it like to shoot the ‘Mama Says’ video? It looked very emotional.
LK: Thank you.
N: The video was shot after ‘River.’
LK: Actually we never had an idea for that video. The idea was just to shoot it. It was not like ‘River.’ With ‘River’ we knew what we were going to do but ‘Mama Says’ was shot in two hours and it was really quick. We had no clue what was going to happen.
N: We just did it.
LK: It was really emotional because it was so simple. That is our mother in the video clip. It was like us everyday.
Naomi, can you tell me about that moment in the end of the video when you all come together. What was happening?
N: In that moment, I felt that my father was around. It was hard.
LK: The thing is, we thought that it was not being filmed. It’s a kind of little rehearsal: ‘OK, at the end you guys can sing together. Let’s see if it’s good.’ [The director] actually really filmed it. It was not planned at all. Ed Morris shot the video. He is a genius. We love him.
Why did you guys decide to keep it?
N: I didn’t decide to keep it.
LK: Ed just did it. When I saw it, I thought it was beautiful because it was natural and unexpected. It was us in an intimate moment.
Since you guys are beginning to be a part of the music industry and doing interviews with strangers like me, is it ever difficult to be asked about your father so much?
N: No. Not at all.
LK: No! We always wanted people to know who our father is and people don’t know him. Musicians really know him but people don’t. So it’s a way to bring him to life again. No, actually it’s a pleasure [to speak about him]. Through us he is always here. Our music and our father’s music is so different as well.
What did you guys listen to growing up?
N: We grew up listening to everything. A lot of soul music.
LK: I’m more jazz and I’m more oldies. I love old stuff. She’s really into hip-hop style and young things—electronic underground rap things. Which I like! I really like the type of music that she listens to but it’s true that in my iPod you won’t find all the rappers that you will find in hers.
N: We grew up with Yoruba music. Meshell Ndegeocello.
LK: She’s my goddess. Nina Simone was the first time I’d heard somebody sing with this type of voice—a type of weird voice. Yoruba music, we grew up listening to those voices. Your debut EP seems minimal—there are only three songs. It’s almost bare because it’s mainly your voices and percussion. Why?
LK: We thought about it and that was the only conscious decision we made. Our producer Richard Russell asked us, ‘OK, what do you want to do with all your songs? An Alicia Keys thing with a lot of instruments?’
N: Or you with a little bit of electronic sounds?
LK: She said no—just electronic and the two of us.
N: I think I was listening to some James Blake and was like, ‘Wow!’
LK: I think it was a way for us to make music of today, otherwise the songs and the Yoruba sound is older. That’s weird to say. It was a way to mix two other things.
All of the songs are very personal, from ‘Oya’ to ‘Mama Says.’ Did you write the songs with Richard Russell? Did you already have them written?
LK: We came to see Richard Russell and we had, I think, twenty songs. He [chose and] said, ‘This one, this one, this one and this one.’ We felt he picked exactly the ones we liked. We felt excited, like, ‘Yes! You are the one we wanted!’ We wrote in the studio because Richard said to us, ‘Never stop writing.’ Some people say there is a time for writing and there is a time for studio and there is a time for touring. Richard said this is bullshit. You have to write everyday because it’s the way to express yourself and it’s important to express things constantly. He told me to go back and write some songs but the three songs for the EP were picked already.
You’ve said that your music is like prayer. That’s beautiful—can you tell me more?
LK: Yoruba music is prayers. When I started writing I took this and I felt I was singing for something that is beyond earth. I feel like sometimes you don’t even write your own songs. You feel like something is coming through you. I think there’s always a spiritual thing in music. Singing is praying in a way.
Do you ever worry how you present Yoruba culture through your music? I’m sure it’s a sensitive thing.
LK: A lot. I will be honest about it. [I think about this] a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot. I thought about it two days ago again. This is one of my biggest worries because this is a religion. We don’t want Yoruba people to be offended at all. This matters for us—it’s part of our lives. We want people to really get it. It’s our way to connect with Cuba. It’s our way to connect with our father. It’s our way to connect with ourselves and show people what we are. I hope people will get that for us it’s a way to make Yoruba known. It’s obviously not for making money. We are afraid people will think that.
Would you ever make music that is not connected to Yoruba?
N: It would be hard, I think.
LK: Because it’s part of us! But you never know. For the moment I feel it’s not possible but maybe yes, maybe in a few years we will want to make a pop album and sing like Beyonce. We don’t know! This could happen. I want to write music for cinema and movies and for dance so maybe I won’t use Yoruba songs for that. Individually, I cannot think of that right now. It’s so difficult to be alone in all of this. I could not imagine myself alone without her, it would not be possible. But yes, music for cinema, I really want that as well as music for dance. Maybe work with different artists. I have thousands of names in my head!
What type of cinema do you like?
LK: I like all types of movies. I like this kind of cinema that touches you really hard. For example, [John] Cassavetes is one of my favorites. I love also Xavier Dolan—do you know him? He is amazing. He is from Quebec. His first movie was at 17. It’s called ‘J’ai Tué Ma Mère.’ I think you can find it with the subtitles in English. It blew my mind, oh my God. Cassavetes and Une Femme Sous Influence is my favorite movie. I love Gena Rowlands, she’s my favorite actress.
I’ve seen that. Disturbing and amazing.
LK: Yeah, amazing! I love these kind of movies that when you get out of the cinema you’re in shock. I love for example, Steve McQueen. I love Shame. I love this kind of cinema. You know, if one day they ask me to make the music of a cartoon, that would be great too.
How long have you performed together?
N: Two years and a half. It felt good.
LK: Performing always feels good. Working together felt weird at first.
N: We are twins and performing is easy for us because we have an audience. When we don’t have one it’s very difficult. When we are together, just us, it’s a mess. It’s awful, it’s horrible.
LK: Screams everywhere! With an audience it’s very easy. [The stage] is our way to communicate. We feel each other.
Why do you cover Jay Electronica’s ‘Better In Tune With The Infinite’ live?
LK: This is one of the most amazing times for us in the studio.
N: We were listening to alot of music and one day Richard Russell put this song, ‘Better In Tune With The Infinite’ and we cried. He said, ‘Do a cover!’
LK: We both cried like … [pouty face] The truth is he said if we wanted to do a cover and I said, ‘But it’s rap! I will not rap. I’m not for rapping—this is not my thing.’ He said, ‘Make a melody with it.’ I went back home for two days—Saturday and Sunday. Sunday I had nothing. I thought he would kill me. He would say, ‘So?’ I’d have to say ‘I have nothing!’ I sat on my piano wishing inspiration would come and the melody came. [Hums melody.] I thought it was great but the truth—this I never said to anyone—I started singing it too high. My mother came and said to me, ‘This is too high! Put it lower.’ We did it in a lower register and we thought it was great. [My mother] has a beautiful ear—she knows.
Naomi, you were saying you lean a little more towards hip-hop.
N: Yes! I can listen to Notorious B.I.G. I love Wiz Khalifa. For me he’s a rapper but he’s also a rocker. He has an energy that nobody has—I feel he’s not in the same mold as others. I also listen to Drake.
LK: I love Jon Wayne—he’s so good!
N: Jay Electronica, Tyler The Creator, Chance The Rapper. I listen to everybody. I love twerking too so I can listen to that [music].
LK: She twerks alot. We’re always joking at home that she will marry a rapper because she’s so obsessed with them. She’s like, ‘I just discovered this new guy, I love him!’
N: My new discovery is Sabba. He’s not famous at all but he’s getting there I think.
It’s often said twins have a special connection. Have you seen that play out in your art?
LK: I’ve played with alot of different musicians in my life and I never experienced this kind of feeling.
N: We can understand each other—
LK: —without talking. When we are really concentrated, it’s like she feels what I want when I want it. For example, we are forte and I feel we must be piano now and she’s right there with me. This is amazing.
N: Often we sing the same song but I’m in one place and—
LK: —I’m in another room.
N: I go to the kitchen for example and we are singing the same part of the same song.
LK: Another time she told me she’s at a friends house and I was like, ‘No, you’re not!’ I can feel you!
So you guys have no ambitions outside of Ibeyi at the moment? There isn’t a Naomi rap album on the horizon someday?
N: Maybe! You never know.
LK: I think if she did a rap album, I would be around somehow. I think she will always be around for my projects, too—but it’s true to say that right now we’re in Ibeyi one hundred percent.
HOLLYWOOD FOREVER PRESENTS IBEYI WITH FLO MORRISSEY ON WED., APR. 2, AT THE MASONIC LODGE AT HOLLYWOOD FOREVER, 6000 SANTA MONICA BLVD., HOLLYWOOD. 8 PM / $20 / ALL AGES. MORE INFO HERE! IBEYI’S SELF-TITLED EP IS AVAILABLE FROM XL. VISIT IBEYI AT IBEYI.FR.