Ibeyi Let Go of Their Ghosts To Face Today's Demons on 'Ash'
The album pulls you into a larger community and asks you to share your memories—no matter how painful they may be.
Image by FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images
Ibeyi's music is like being in the presence of ghosts. The French-Cuban duo have made a name for themselves making the kind of music that shifts souls and triggers collective memory. Heavy Latin percussion, piano and electronic elements converge next to call and response Yoruba prayer. Their lyrics come from a deeply personal place calling on generational and family histories as its backbone. Ibeyi spent the better part of 2015 - 2016 on tour, capitalizing off the strength of their single "River" and its haunting video. With an appearance in Beyoncé's Lemonade, the twins found even newer fans—curious and hungry to be invited into the intimate space they carved out for themselves. To see them live is a spiritual experience, their sets beginning with candle lighting at the front of their stage before heading into the opening prayer "Eleggua." It's a sound that is both ancient and modern; familiar to those acclimated to sounds from West Africa and brand new to many others all at once. It's an emotional rollercoaster that is hard to duplicate.
Ibeyi, though, seem ready to let the ghosts of their past go and are prepared to take on the demons of today. That is very apparent on their latest record, Ash. Where their self-titled debut was a warm and introspective invitation, Ash reaches out to make sense of the world around them. In the former, Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz (who make up Ibeyi) grappled with the deaths of both their father, Afro-Cuban jazz musician Miguel Diaz, and their sister Yanira. Ash feels like an examination of cherished contents in your bedroom—a lifetime of memories—but it pulls you into a larger community and asks you to share your own—no matter how painful they may be.
The Diaz sisters jump head first into previously, for them, uncharted territory; trading quiet subtlety for overt swipes at sexism and state violence. In their growing world, features make an appearance for the first time by way of artists like Meshell Ndegeocello, whose influence shines through on her addition to "Transmission/Michaelion." Chilly Gonzales and Spanish Rapper Mala Rodriguez both find their space on the album, with Rodriguez adding a verse to the first song Ibeyi has done primarily in Spanish. The addition of these new voices makes for an album that feels more external and collaborative; pulling much more from the outside than their first.
"Deathless" pulls directly from Lisa-Kaindé's own experience of being arrested by French police in her teens; a repressed memory she was hesitant to write about at first. As Lisa tells it, an officer randomly stopped her as she made her way through the city's public metro, questioning her about drug use before getting physical and dumping her book bag's contents onto the ground. The song's energy is tense, both static and frenetic at once—much like any experience Black people have with law enforcement all over the globe; its chanted refrain backed by Kamasi Washington's stunning saxophone.
The line can often get blurry when so much of your dilemmas and resolutions are tied to who you are, and though Ash is a departure from the deeply intimate subject matter of their first record, it still focuses on the twins' own understanding of the world they live in—for better or for worse. The album's opening "I Carried This For Years" is the warning that the twins are more ready than ever to unpack. Through the eyes French citizens with roots, and now a home, in Cuba, they observe it from a global context, not just a North American one—less likely to tread lightly on the things that hit closest to home.
On "No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms," their vocals swirl around soundbites from a 2016 speech by MIchelle Obama hitting back at President Trump's treatment of women. While on "Valé," they offer hope to a younger generation of women. Women who have to grow up in the tumultuous current times that have shaped much of this album. "And shine as bright as you can / You've been loved, you still are," they sing.
The twins deliver harmonies that are tighter, sharper, more mature—more cognizant and deliberate. They've reimagined themselves in a newer and expanded sonic landscape, diving deeper into exploring alt-R&B, dabbling with anthemic pop sensibilities like on "I Wanna Be Like You." Where we normally see the fraternal twins as something like a single moving entity, Lisa-Kaindé openly longs for her sister Naomi's fearlessness. That fearlessness guides the album more than ever with Naomi stepping from her usually seated position behind the cajon and bata drums to take lead on songs like "Waves."
By flipping the lens outward, Ibeyi narrowly avoided making the same album over again, having already bared so much about the spirits that have taken root in their own lives. "We sing and our tears dry, facing a clearer sky," they sing in unison on "Transmission." The sisters have grown. They may not be weary, but Ash feels cathartic—a small light boldly pushing through dark realizations.
Sajae Elder is a writer from Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.