Q&A: Ibeyi On Redefining “World Music,” Embracing Auto-Tune, & Their New Album Ash
Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Díaz are twin sisters who make up the aptly named duo Ibeyi, which translates to “Twins” in the Yoruban language of West Africa. When I met up with them in New York, the two had arrived in the city an hour before — Lisa-Kaindé flew in from London and Naomi from Paris. The sisters met in New York to promote their sophomore album, Ash, the follow-up to their self-titled 2015 release.
Instead of being exhausted from their long journey, the Díaz sisters were excited to discuss the album, which they have been working on since November, during a moment in the United States when apocalyptic politics were exceptionally bad (which isn’t to say that they’ve improved much since). Ash is not an explicitly political album — during our chat, the sisters mention a few times that they never want to preach an indisputable perspective — but the time in which the album was created makes its content feel heavier, weighted with the demons of social injustice and a demand for change.
The Díaz twins’ gift for knee-jerking drumbeats and luminous harmonies is in their blood; they are daughters of the late Miguel “Angá” Díaz, who was a percussionist for the Buena Vista Social Club. The duo commemorates their father, and their older sister Yanira who passed away in 2013, through their music. They haven’t stopped writing since their debut studio album, making Ash a part of the journey that began with their self-titled full-length, and their 2014 EP Oya. “They’re all connected. It’s like a journey. We’re thinking of a third one already and writing music for the third one already,” explains Lisa-Kaindé.
Although Ash is their second album, the Díaz sisters experienced a lot of firsts while they were making it: their first time writing a song in Spanish (“Me Voy”); their first time using Auto-Tune; their first time working with various collaborators, from singer-songwriter/rapper/bassist Meshell Ndegeocello to the saxophone sage Kamasi Washington. Also, Naomi, who is the mastermind behind the drums and rhythms while Lisa-Kainde writes the lyrics, took on more lead vocals on Ash. Specifically, the song “Waves” highlights the raw tension within Naomi’s smoky voice, complementing the visceral subjects she sings about — the natural elements of water and earth, as well as parts of the human anatomy.
A crucial part of understanding Ibeyi’s music is recognizing the insertion of Yoruban culture and their religion of Santería. They embrace the elements and the culture that was passed down from slaves who were shipped to Cuba and Brazil. Lisa-Kaindé expressed how sometimes thinking about where their folk songs come from, she is in awe and incredibly touched that despite adversity, their faith survived. Ash continues the thread of Ibeyi’s thought-provoking music, using various languages and samples to express their beliefs, hopes, and anxieties.
Sitting down with Ibeyi in the bar of their hotel in Times Square, the two instantly started to relay stories about exuberant fans and moments in the studio. Playing off of each other’s words, and making small jokes at the other’s expense, the twins revealed the whimsy of their sisterhood, but also the curious and buoyant synergy that is Ibeyi. Our conversation zips from people’s expectations of what Auto-Tune sounds like and the limitations of genre, to their multiple collaborations. Read our Q&A and listen to their new single “I Wanna Be Like You” below.
STEREOGUM: How has the process of writing and recording changed since you released your debut album?
LISA-KAINDÉ DÍAZ: I think that the only thing that was different with Ash is that we all grew up so much during those two and a half years in between these two albums. We have more experience. The stage helps you know what to do, what kind of album you want to [create]. [We felt] the same excitement and the same commitment and a tiny bit more pressure because the first album you just don’t care do you? It’s just pure intuition. The second one is suddenly… you want people to be touched by it, but I guess the key is forgetting about that and following your intuition again, getting into a zone where it’s just you making an album for yourself.
NAOMI DÍAZ: At the end of the day there’s some people that will like the first and not the second one. You have to do what you have to do. We’re listening to people, but we’re not doing stuff because they like it or not. For example, we’re using a lot of Auto-Tune this time because we love Auto-Tune and a lot of people hate it.
STEREOGUM: You can’t please everyone.
LISA-KAINDÉ: It’s funny because we’ve been interested to see if anyone will change their mind seeing us on stage. It’s an effect. They think, “Oh why do you use it? Your voices are beautiful.” We received this email from a fan who was really upset about it. She said, “I’m so sorry to send that message to you but I feel I should tell you. Please, don’t follow the path of the Auto-Tune music.” I was like, “Wow, that’s interesting!” For us, it was never like we’re entering the Auto-Tune path. We just made music, and it’s really organic. The Auto-Tune can be really organic. It’s a way to lighten some words and leave some others in the shadows. It’s like distortion. It’s a way to [play] with the sound of your voice.
NAOMI: Also, I feel like you’re an artist, so you listen to a lot of different music, and you’re not only one way. You don’t do only one category. I listen to a lot of trap and hip-hop, and normally people know. But there are some who don’t know. For them, it’s like it’s not you anymore. They have to understand that as humans we have different faces and we could be different –
LISA-KAINDÉ: And phases!
NAOMI: We couldn’t do a second album [the same way we did] the first one.
STEREOGUM: Auto-Tune is just another tool that you can use.
NAOMI: We have to explore.
LISA-KAINDÉ: That’s the thing: we’re musicians, and we need to explore. People are like, “Don’t touch it!” But no! If it excites you, touch it! We Auto-Tune Yoruba songs. This is the biggest thing on the album. There’s a song called “Barasu-Ayo” for Eleguá, the god that opens and closes the path in the Yoruba religion. We opened the first album with that song super raw, just us singing, almost without reverb. Our voices really sounded like two babies’ voices. It’s quite striking. We close this album with the same song but Auto-Tuned. It just made sense. We realized we wanted people to dance more and to move more. We wanted more body. That’s also something that you learn. That’s how “Me Voy” worked too. We realized we wanted to do a reggaeton. We could have been like, “Oh it’s not Ibeyi,” but it is and it’s part of what we have in our ears.
STEREOGUM: Your music is very physical in the sense that a lot of the lyrics mention the body and being one with the elements. It’s earthy and visceral. It makes you want to dance, but listening I pick up on moments that are very intense emotionally, but it’s not sad.
LISA-KAINDÉ: It’s not.
STEREOGUM: It’s pensive, and it makes you think.
LISA-KAINDÉ: You said everything we wanted this album to be. We wanted it to be visceral and organic and at the same time we wanted people to enjoy it. That’s the whole point. We always write about — well not always — but we sometimes write about sad things to make them enjoyable, to make them beautiful, to make them part of a moment that we take them off that memory of just sadness. It’s so nice that you think of that and not go instantly to “It’s pop music mixed with electronic music, with some world music and blah blah blah.” Because that’s what [some people write]! It actually makes me laugh because they are just trying to find a way to define it. [The music] just becomes a sack of things.
STEREOGUM: Is it frustrating for you when people describe your music as “world music”?
NAOMI: Oh yeah. I hate that!
LISA-KAINDÉ: I just don’t care. [That term] can mean anything! Everything is world music. I don’t think [the label is] racist but loads of people think it’s racist because then it’s like American music is not part of the world. European music is not part of the world. But Asians and Africans; you’re making world music. Some people take it really personally. I do not, literally I will not. There’s so much more to be upset about than this, but it makes no sense.
NAOMI: When you don’t know how to define it you say something it “world music.”
STEREOGUM: Is it difficult to find that balance between the sad realities of some subjects while wanting to make people dance?
NAOMI: Nah, I don’t even think about it.
LISA-KAINDÉ: We never thought about it. We never thought, “Oh we need to make sad songs with dance music or sad songs with emotional, happy sounds.” The energy, the way we sing these songs every night is going to feel good. There’s something about reliving this pain, reliving it every day, and about acknowledging your pain, too, and making it beautiful. That’s what I love about art. I think it’s important to live your pain and do something with it. That’s what always fascinated me about artists like Frida Kahlo and Nina Simone. You feel their pain and there is something so beautiful about it.
STEREOGUM: There’s a lyrics on “Transmission” where it goes “should I share how I feel or should I bury it inside?” I was wondering if that is a struggle that you guys experience with your music?
LISA-KAINDÉ: On the album I also wrote lyrics with my mother. “Transmission” is the heart of the album. For me, it’s one of the most important songs on the album. It’s about everything we believe in. We believe in transmission. We believe in saying to people this is how I felt, this is me. Thank God I have music! Thank God! Because I think I would have buried too much and, at one point, explode. Making songs when we were teenagers, we never thought we would sing them in public but it was just a way to tell [people] how I felt.
“Transmission” is so important. Not only saying how you feel, but looking at how people are feeling around you and trying to understand them; finding what links us more than what divides us. Then, learning from our past and learning from other people’s past and learning from history, which is really hard. In the last year of touring [we felt] quite defeated about the world. There are days you wake up where you’re like, “I’m so fucking useless. I can’t do anything [to change things]. We’re gonna all die and fuck it.” But realizing you can’t save the world, that is for sure, but you can do something little [to help people] and that’s still something. There’s a domino effect [of small actions].
STEREOGUM: When you say you felt “defeated” I assume you meant by the political climate?
LISA-KAINDÉ: Yeah. I feel that we are all losing what links us [as human beings]. It feels like all we talk about. [Friends and I] always talk about stuff like, “Oh I don’t know what is happening with Americans or I don’t know what is happening with people in Berlin.” We’re always trying to find the differences in people [from other cultures], instead of [recognizing] that we are quite similar.
STEREOGUM: The album is littered with strong female characters and embracing female power. I also noticed that “Valé,” which is a lullaby you wrote for your five-year-old niece Valerie, is an example of female voices lifting other female voices up.
NAOMI: Yeah, but it’s not only for girls.
LISA-KAINDÉ: We didn’t realize when we were making the album and then people were like, “Oh it’s a girl power album!” We were like, really?
We worked with women but didn’t realize [the album would be considered that way] because we also had powerful men working with us: Kamasi Washington, Richard Russell, Chilly Gonzales. It felt like the perfect balance. Also a man posed that question to us, “So what’s the problem with men?”
NAOMI: Oh my god! He didn’t understand what we were saying.
LISA-KAINDÉ: He didn’t get the song! I said to this journalist, “If I [perform for an audience] and half of the audience are men saying “No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms” that would be the best day. That’s the point.
STEREOGUM: I was curious if you ascribe explicit political meaning to your music, but because we live in such a politically volatile climate, people are going to read into what they want the music to be.
LISA-KAINDÉ: The time that we are living in makes it political.
NAOMI: Remember when someone said, “Ah yeah this is for black girls. This is our song.” It’s true that everybody [hears music] in their own way.
LISA-KAINDÉ: And I like that! You want people to feel that it is theirs. We made this album thinking about people at our shows, thinking about how to make them move, and how to make them sing loud and how to give them energy. What we love about playing in the US is that our audience is so diverse and beautiful and all ages. [Our music] is not just for young people. It’s for every generation.
Ash is out 9/29 via XL Recordings.