Deriving their name from the Yoruba word for twins ibeji, the French-Cuban twin sibling duo Ibeyi (pronounced ee-bey-ee), comprised of Lisa-Kainde Diaz and Naomi Diaz have become JOVM mainstays and a critically applauded, internationally recognized act. Interestingly, the Diaz sisters are the daughters of the late and renowned percussionist Anga Diaz, best known as a member of Buena Vista Social Club, and for collaborating with Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez and Compay Segundo. The elder Diaz died when the girls were 11, and upon his death, they studied Yoruba folk songs and the cajon, an Afro-Carribean drum, which their father had specialized in throughout most of his musical career.
While Yoruba is primarily spoken throughout Nigeria and Benin, it has been spoken in some fashion in Cuba since the 1700s when the slave trade brought Africans to the Caribbean — and to the island. When the Diaz sisters began studying their late father’s musical culture and heritage, it gave them a much greater understanding of the man, where he came from while putting them in touch with their ancestral history. Unsurprisingly, the Diaz sister’s self-titled Ibeyi debut, which was released to critical praise in 2015, thematically dealt with the past — the loss of their father, their relationship with each other, their father’s and their own origins and roots, while sonically the duo’s sound possessed elements of contemporary electro pop, hip-hop, jazz, the blues and traditional Yoruba folk music in a way that brought to mind Henry Cole and the Afrobeat Collective‘s Roots Before Branches as both albums conscientiously made a spiritual and musical connection between the African Diaspora in the West and the motherland.
Up until last year though, some time had passed since I had personally written about the Diaz sisters, and as it turned out, they had spent the better part of 2016 writing and recording the material that would comprise their sophomore effort Ash, which XL Records released late last year. Now, as you recall the album’s first album, “Away Away,” lyrically and thematically focused on accepting pain as a necessary part of life, while celebrating life for its complicated entirety. Of course, sonically speaking, the track further cements their reputation for resoundingly positive messages sung with their gorgeous harmonizing paired with slick and swaggering electronic production. However, the material overall reportedly finds the Diaz sisters writing some of the most visceral, politically charged material they’ve released to date; but while centered on who the Diaz sisters are after a year in which racial, gender and sexual identity issues are among the most important and vexing of our current time.
“Deathless,” Ash‘s second single found the Diaz sisters collaborating with contemporary jazz great Kamasi Washington, who contributes saxophone lines that mange to be mournful, outraged, proud, bold and riotous — within a turn of a phrase. The song is inspired by one of the most outrageous and humiliating experiences of Lisa-Kainde Diaz’s life — she was was wrongly arrested by French police for a crime she didn’t commit. Throughout the song is a sense of fear, knowing that the police could practically do anything they wanted without reprisal; of righteous rage that’s palpable yet impotent in the face of a power that can crush you at will; of the burgeoning recognition that you can never escape racism or unfair treatment; and the shame of being made to feel small and worthless while knowing that it’ll happen repeatedly throughout your life. As Lisa Kainde explains in press notes I was writing Deathless as an anthem for everybody!” For every minority. For everybody that feels that they are nothing, that feels small, that feels not cared about and I want them to listen to our song and for three minutes feel large, powerful, deathless. I have a huge amount of respect for people who fought for, what I think, are my rights today and if we all sing together ‘we are deathless, ’they will be living through us into a better world.”
Just the other day, the Diaz sisters made their major television debut performance on Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which features the Harlem Gospel Choir and Isaiah Barr of Onyx Collective on the last day of Black History, as a fiery and passionate reminder of the plight of black folk across the African Diaspora.