Crossing Cultures And Crafts: A Conversation With French-Cuban Twins Ibeyi

While the phenomenon of twins is typically associated with similarity, Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz could not be more diverse; spiritually, sonically and culturally, the Diaz sisters coalesce and intersect the most seemingly converse concepts, designing an idiosyncratic sound that marries organic and electronic, fuses their Cuban heritage and Parisian upbringing, and communicates straight from the heart.

Drawing their namesake from the West African Yoruba word for twins, Ibeyi first stunned the world in 2015 with their bold self-titled debut. Comprising vignettes of grief from the passing of their older sister, and their father, legendary congeuro Miguel “Angá” Díaz, the record melded percussive panache, with haunting melodies and innately raw storytelling.

Since then, the duo have appeared in Beyoncé‘s iconic short film for ‘Lemonade’, performed  at Karl Lagerfeld‘s Chanel Cruise 2017 show in Havana, and mesmerised audiences across continents with their enchanting live set. Like their first album, Ibeyi’s sophomore ‘Ash’ features the production fingerprints of Richard Russell, the owner of prestigious British record label XL.

Written during the dystopic 2016 US election, ‘Ash’ ties the Diaz’ wide-reaching influences around conversations of race, identity, and power. Its collaborations span saxophone god Kamasi Washington, Spanish MC Mala Rodriguez and neo-soul pioneer Meshell Ndegeocello, while its allusions stretch from Frida Kahlo to Jean-Michel Basquiat‘s lover and partner Suzanne Mallouk.

We chatted to the pair about performing for Chanel, the outdated notion of ‘world music’, spirituality in song, and writing their sophomore record ‘Ash’ under a global spotlight.

Best Before: Are you still in NYC? I saw that yesterday you performed at the TED X Global conference there?

Lisa-Kaindé: Yeah, exactly wow!

How was that?

Lisa-Kaindé: It was amazing! It was actually really cool to be in the middle of such a variety of people, and we loved it.

I heard there were a lot of people in the audience from the UN.

Lisa-Kaindé: Yeah – we were really scared about that, actually. TED Conference is incredible, but you don’t have time to build something slowly with the audience. So you have to get there and put them all on board instantly almost, so it was a complicated thing to do but we loved it.

And how are you finding audiences around the world are responding to your music? Did you perform “Me Voy”?

Lisa-Kaindé: No – we sung “Vale” which is a lullaby for our niece, and “River” and “Away Away”. But, you know what, we’re so lucky. It’s so incredible, we always have really strong, incredible, fiery audiences and they always sing really loud, and that’s what we love. 

You’ve been really busy the last few weeks. Your new project with Richard Russell’s (who produced both Ibeyi albums) has come out, ‘Everything Is Recorded’. Can you tell me a little bit about your involvement with that?

Lisa-Kaindé: He asked us in the middle of our two albums – he produced his own one – if we wanted to be part of the ‘Everything Is Recorded’ collective, and part of the ‘Everything Is Recorded’ adventure. We were so happy that he asked, and touched. We absolutely loved it, and it was fantastic to be able to all create together and learn so much from all of the artists that were there.

You’ve obviously been working as a pair for a long time, but on the new album there are a lot of collaborators, including Michelle Ndegeocello – who was once a ‘dream collaboration’ for you. How was working with her?

Lisa-Kaindé: It was fantastic, especially because she was in a song that is really important to use. We feel that “Transmission” is the heart of the album. So having her in the song, playing bass, was so incredible. Especially because we feel like she’s transmitted so much to us through her music and her songs. We were really happy.

And how did the collaboration with Kamasi come about?

Lisa-Kaindé: We met him doing a lot of festivals together. We were always on the same stage, and he was always playing after us, so we were seeing him all the time, and then he asked us to do something for him, and we did. And we did something with him for Russell’s record. Then we asked him to play on our song, and he did. We’re really proud he’s on the album, and he’s someone that’s really inspiring. He’s one of the best musicians right now – he’s amazing.

On ‘Ash’, you still have a lot of organic elements, but there are also plenty of electronic touches as well – like autotuned vocals, which is all over French rap right now. Did you find yourselves consciously pulling from that part of your heritage more on this record?

Lisa-Kaindé: Yes! I mean, France is just part of our lives, and influences and choices, it just comes so naturally in our songs. It’s part of our music. We have so much influences – what we like to do is just mix every type of music we love, and not be afraid to experience and experiment.

“‘World music’ is when you don’t know where to put the artist.”

With the first album, people said it was quite intrusive, almost like walking in on something very personal. Did your approach to writing change this time, knowing that – for example – Beyoncé is going to be listening to your new record?

Lisa-Kaindé: Oh! You try to not think about that! *laughs* When you’re recording or writing, you try not to think about Beyonce listening to it, or actually the audience listening to it. But, weirdly enough, we imagined the audience singing the songs, and that surely changed our way to write music. We feel that this album is like a live album, and we can’t wait to sing those songs, and make the audience sing those songs. So yeah, that changed. But we always try to write music that would make us happy first, and would make us proud first.

And you’re always crossing languages with songs. You’ve said for “Me Voy”, you wanted a sensual, Spanish feel. Do you have certain qualities that you automatically connect with your different mother tongues? 

Lisa-Kaindé: It actually comes more naturally and organically than that. For example, “Me Voy”, I realised that it was really sensual when I had almost finished writing it. You don’t sit at the piano thinking, “OKAY. I’m going to write a Spanish, sensual song.” It doesn’t work like that. You just go with the flow and then suddenly you realise, wow, there’s some sensuality in there. It’s organic, it makes you want to move, it’s a deep feeling of rhythm. And then you realise one of the reasons why it’s sensual is Spanish. But yeah, definitely every language has a different feel to it, and it took us time to find our sound in Spanish, to find our sound in French. We’re still working on that. It’s wonderful to be able to sing in different languages.

Where did you write most of this album?

Lisa-Kaindé: Actually everywhere, where there was a piano. I would say mostly coming back home in every break of the tour, I would sit at the piano and write. If there’s a piano, I’ll write songs. Ha!

Do your songwriting instincts change depending on your sense of place, for example, if you’re visiting Cuba, do you connect automatically feel like you connect more with that culture?

Lisa-Kaindé: Oh, definitely more inspired! Yes, that’s for sure! It’s different. I don’t know if it changes, it’s just there are more elements to it, as if you’re watching a movie that really touched you, or you’re reading a book that is incredible, or you saw a scene on the street. It’s just more flavours to your cooking.

I love that on this album, you feature a lot of powerful women (Michelle Obama, Frida Kahlo, Claudia Rankine). Was that a conscious choice?

Lisa-Kaindé: Yeah,  it was a conscious choice. It was what we felt, and we love it. We love Frida Kahlo! We’ve been fans since we were little. We love Claudia Rankine. “No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms”, that sentence comes from a book called Widow Basquiat, and that woman called Susanne said that when she was seven. The Michelle Obama speech, we thought it was so beautiful, the words she used were amazing. We didn’t realise, actually, there were so many women until, at the end, when we listened to the whole album. We are incredibly inspired by women, and believe in women knowing that they can be ambitious, and they can go far and they don’t need a man to get to the moon.

“The most important thing in music, more than spirituality, is telling your own truth, being sincere, and talking about what you feel.”

You’ve had a lot of success in the last few years. You performed at the Chanel show in Cuba. In the past, you’ve both discussed how Cuba doesn’t carry a positive reputation, so how did you find being involved in that campaign and being able to show it in such a positive light?

Naomi: It was amazing, and at the same time it was kind of not normal. We’re French and Cuban, so it was right to just be there. We were really happy and honoured for a brand like Chanel, one of the most luxurious brands-

Lisa-Kaindé: Also, one of the oldest! – to ask us, and also the fact that we open with a Yoruba song in our own country was quite powerful. They could have asked us to open with other things, and when we said that we wanted to open with a Yoruba song, they said “Yes!” And we thought it was incredible.

People often associate you two with Santeria, but there are a number religions running through your family, like Catholicism and Judaism. How important is spirituality to your music?

Lisa-Kaindé: Lots of people say that – that our music is spiritual. We believe that everybody is spiritual. Everybody has faith in something. I think the most important thing in music, more than spirituality, is telling your own truth, being sincere, and talking about what you feel.

Many people have described elements of your sound as ‘world music’. Do you think the term world music is still going to have relevance in the next few years?

Naomi: ‘World music’ is when you don’t know where to put the artist.

Lisa-Kaindé: You know, no one never likes the term world music, because everything is world music. It’s like saying ‘music’.

And it’s being used for basically non-Western music.

Lisa-Kaindé: Yeah! Which is stupid. Because that’s also world music, if you have a little common sense. Every music is world music, so it makes no sense. It was just a way to put-

Naomi : African, Asian…

Lisa-Kaindé: ..and Latino music somewhere, because they don’t know a lot about it. We’re not mad about it, but when I hear the term world music, I don’t think about my music.

Naomi: No, we don’t! Haha.

Do you have any goals or collabortions you’re hoping to do?

Lisa-Kaindé: Oh my god! Thousands! This is the start. Thousands of things that we want to do. Writing for movies, writing music for dance, collaborating with amazing art-visual people, amazing singers and musicians, getting to travel more of the world, writing more albums, discovering more art, learning more about ourselves. This is just the start!

Will we see you in Australia any time soon? We’d love to have you back!

Naomi: We loved Australia! I think we are!

Lisa-Kaindé: Yeah, I think we’re going!!

‘Ash’ is out now. Listen to the album in full here: