Ibeyi Ibeyi

[XL; 2015]

Styles: soul, electronic, traditional instruments, Yoruba, Cuba
Others: Anga Diaz, Julianna Barwick

The Diaz sisters (Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi), together known as Ibeyi, have given us an album of pop-folk-soul idiosyncratic that is, at times, brilliant enough to make one feel reductive in calling it anything so generalizing. Yes, we can tentatively call it pop — the melodies and the personality are there. Folk seems reasonable enough, too: Ibeyi bring percussion and language from the Yoruba/Afro-Cuban tradition. Certainly there is nothing unsoulful about the sisters’ voices. But that hyphen-abusing generalization doesn’t describe the ectoplasmic duende inarguably driving this pair’s music. Something huge, good, and shapeless hides behind and within these songs.

Were it not for the emphasis placed on their twinhood within their own biographies and mythos, it would be arbitrary (lazy, even) to situate Ibeyi along the timeline of sibling musical partnerships. But look at the album art (a serious photo portrait of the sisters, temple to temple, gazing out); read the “about” section on their website or any recent interview/intro piece (according to which “ibeyi” is a Yoruban word translating into English as “twins”); listen to the razor’s-edge close harmonies: twindom is the engine, the energy of Ibeyi.

What this album manages to do so well, so thoroughly, is integrate their family and history (their father, Anga Diaz, was a famous Cuban percussionist) with contemporary trends in pop and vocal musics. The traditional instruments, the Cajón and the Batá, masquerade as organic counterparts to the electronic beats so apparently essential in 2010s popular music.

On “Oya,” the percussive force comes in only at the song’s final refrain, feeling somehow like an arboreal bass-drop. The harmonies on “Oya” alone are ecstatic, revelatory, but the introduction (the first moment of percussion on the album) of Naomi’s shaking, crackling, pounding beat is a truly startling, singular moment.

The first half of the album (from “Oya” through “Think of You,” particularly) stands as some of the most engaging and prettiest music in recent pop memory. And while the album’s second half slides slowly into staleness and monochrome romanticism, the relatively tired songs making up the back end do nothing to undermine the absolute strength of songs like “River” or “Ghosts,” which flit between the very European trend of electronic singer-songwriter music (a style that proliferated after, but certainly wasn’t invented by, James Blake’s self-titled album); the thin, fragile, gorgeous harmonies of voice-auteurs like Julianna Barwick; and the stomping, percussive music of their family’s Afro-Cuban and Yoruban heritage.

Ibeyi is an uneven but sturdily promising debut. We should be at ease knowing that such syntheses of culture and music are not only going on in our (too often violently) globalizing world, but also to such a successful, fresh extent.

Links: Ibeyi - XL

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