Ibeyi crept into view around the middle of last year. With almost no online footprint, they seemed both innocent and mystical in an unsettling video for their album’s second single, “The River.” The twin sisters, Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz, appear in a closeup shot throughout, taking turns having their heads forced underwater while the other sings. Like the first single, “Oya,” “The River” is an expression of the Diazes’ Afro-Cuban heritage, introduction material that helped frame their debut from the onset as an enticing mix of Yoruba spiritual music and electronic R&B, either hand drenched in rhythm.
The sisters’ father, Anga Diaz, was a renown Cuban percussionist and conguero before he passed in 2006, when his daughters were only 11. Diaz’s ghost endures with Ibeyi however and their self-titled first album feels more than a little like a tribute to him. Besides English, much of the album is sung in the sisters’ Cuban-framed Yoruba, a Nigerian language their mother encouraged upon them and from which they’ve derived their stage name. Fittingly, Naomi plays primarily a cajón but also a batá on the album, traditional percussion instruments in Cuba, the latter more specifically tied to Santeria. Despite the explicit Cuban undertones in their music, the sisters were born and spent much of their lives in Paris and they’re now signed to British indie behemoth XL Recordings, current home to the likes of FKA Twigs and Radiohead (and RATKING) and former label to Adele and M.I.A. The imprint’s owner, Richard Russell, is the only other contributor on Ibeyi and his production instills the entire effort with deft synth work that creeps into and around Naomi’s acoustic percussion.
Ibeyi’s Yoruba chants — the intro, end of “The River,” “Behind The Curtain,” the outro—propel some of the album’s most enticing moments, a purity that pleases without context. Their delving into more genre-meandering grooves builds a different kind of delight and certain contorted pop mannerisms beg comparisons to Bjork. They also share a fascination with Hip Hop, an interest that is evidenced in a popular Jay Electronica cover online more so than any explicit moment on the debut. “Weatherman” is crackly and eery with a liquid sounding synth panning in the background. “Faithful” opens with a round, rumbling bassline that almost sounds like it belongs to Dr. Dre’s “Deep Cover” and the song catches quickly as a highlight moment of the intersection between the sisters’ acoustics and Russell’s electronica. Naomi’s cajón and batá are airy and can commit a swelling, throbbing effect to an entire track’s bottom-end while Russell’s array of synths and samples can induce jaggedness and knotty, unearthly textures. The result is a project that sits still in some places and squirms around experimentally in others.
The album version of “The River” is extended and takes longer to build up. This version also benefits from a noticeably improved mastering and soundstage, little ticks and acoustic percussive bits popping all around throughout. Each of the sisters’ singing, like their looks, is distinct from the other’s but similar enough that small deviations from the shared likeness become striking. Together their vocals mesh uncannily. Endearingly, neither of the twins’ English singing scrubs their shared accent. Lisa’s is the traditional lead voice and segments of the album rely on her vocals and plain piano in a vacuum. That isolation mounts into an effective crescendo on “Behind The Curtain” as the song’s first rhythmic element enters after the three-minute mark, smacking away the silent space abruptly enough to startle. The album is littered with those kinds of full stops, breaks, and nearly awkward moments of productively sustained silence.
At 20, Ibeyi have produced an album that belies their youth. It’s poignant, haunting, and often consumed with death. The spiritual remembrance of their father that is “Think Of You” grants him credit as an ultimate inspiration and starts with a sample of his own work. “Let’s remember with rhythm our loved ones that are gone,” they sing on the song, and then, more tragically specific, “We walk on rhythm and we think of you.” “Yanira” immortalizes the duo’s older sister, who died several years ago, and the end of the song trails off with a synth that sounds like a life support monitor. It’s a testament to Richard Russell’s careful handling of Ibeyi’s songs that they’ve come packaged so originally, and where the material is free of his obvious fingertips it shines vulnerably unaffected. Ibeyi is executed expertly and encapsulates entirely its artists’ public narrative and ambitious musical inclinations up to this point. For now, that’s a blessing and all we know enough to ask for.