Ibeyi: What's your sound?
Havana, 2002. For the recording of El güije, a cheerful Arabian song, Haydée Milanés and Descemer Bueno bring together a children's choir. In it, two 7-year-old sisters sing things like "cum chá cu chá cu chá" and “eeehh aaaahh leeeiiii lee leeee, va repartiendo la felicidad / eeehh aaaahh leeeiiii lee leeee, la fantasía de su libre andar”, with the unconcern of those who plays.
A year later, the father of both will die. It wasn't their first encounter with death, they had lost a little sister before. Something breaks and melts with each death. In the next decade one of the sisters will assume as an unstated testament the mysteries of percussion while the other will be immersed in classical piano and jazz studies. Never thinking about a career, but as a natural result of growing in music. In the middle, what they call adolescence. In between, YouTube, Rihanna, Yoruba music, Beyoncé, Eastern traditional music. In the middle, Paris, Havana once a year, and trips throughout Europe. In the middle, books, movies, the Louvre. And then 2013. The explosion that nobody anticipated.
They came as almost everything presented by Richard Russell in XL Recordings, the exquisite independent label located in London. Until then, the readings in the 21st century of Afro-Cuban music had been scarce and had little international impact. But the Ibeyi appeared: Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Díaz Dagnino, two Cuban-Venezuelan jimaguas raised in Paris amid the effervescence of Cuba's last great 20th-century percussionist, lullabies as motherly melodies and the promiscuous crossing of a metropolis that is African, Arab, Latin and European at the same time.
Ibeyi (XL Recordings, 2015), their first album, was a breath of fresh air, an impressive revision of the codes and the ways to tackle one of the most vital musics of our country. With the Yoruba ritual chants as an inspirational source, they displayed a series of family vignettes in which intimate portraits are drawn with the help of vocal games, looped sequences of piano, beats from drum pad and cajón.
"We like our music to be eclectic," explains Lisa-Kaindé, "to be able to travel in different genres. That's why there are songs that are more hip hop, and other songs more dance, and others down tempo".
The result, a splendid beauty, took us by surprise to all: listeners, critics, journalists.
Although they reside in Europe, Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi often return to the land where they were born. Interviewing them here, in Cuba, is a difficult task. Here they come to recharge their batteries, to live together as sisters outside work —now Naomi lives in Paris and Lisa-Kaindé in London— to forget about all that world of work and journalists. But sometimes, with a little luck and help, you can sit with them —Lisa-Kaindé and you in garden chairs, Naomi in a hammock-in the wide doorway of a house in Miramar. A house all in white, very close to the coastline, with the lawn and half-withered plants still as a reminder of the last penetration of the sea in Havana, in December 2018.
One, from so much thinking about the duo, from so much reading about the sisters, can fall into the trap of seeing them as "the Ibeyi", as if they were a unit, but it is enough to listen to them for two minutes to realize that it is about two women who, despite growing together and under the same values and education, have developed markedly different and complementary personalities. To our fortune and their music.
Yes, it is true what is said, to listen to them is to witness an unusual spectacle halfway between telepathy and the train collision, their thoughts stumble among themselves, they crowd and dredge to finally take them where they want to go. In the interview statements are written to one and another by pure convention, but often the answers come from a collective construction, such as a multi-lane highway that intersects constantly.
This conversation, which interrupts their vacation, is interrupted by the entry and exit of friends to the house, the gardener, the mother who goes out for a while. The happy calm of simple things.
What group do you think Ibeyi would have been if you had not had the connection, the Cuban roots?
Lisa-Kaindé: Not so interesting, sure, because what gave us the strength to do Ibeyi was that, to realize that we had something to say with a different vision and perspective from other people. And I think it would not have been so interesting Ibeyi without France.
"We like our music to be eclectic"
I wanted to ask them about that too, because it's less obvious. I perceive it in your attitude, that eclectic and multicultural thing that Paris fosters, where young people like you can pass from the folk music of the East to Rihanna, without any complex.
Lisa-Kaindé: I think that thanks to France, we grew up with YouTube, listening to music from the United States, music from the East... I mean, we had incredible access to all the music in the world, and that was something that France gave us. A city like Paris that is really amazing, we could go to the Louvre, we could go to twenty million places. And we were also traveling around Europe, and all that is a huge opportunity. I think so, what's interesting about Ibeyi, from our perspective, is that we do not have our feet in one place. We have one foot here and one foot there.
I understand that with the first album you arrived with the demos and Richard Russell was the one who incorporated more electronic sounds. How do you take the process with the producers?
Lisa-Kaindé: We co-produce with him; we had to find a producer who would let us experiment, do what we wanted.
Naomi: Yes, because there are many producers who tell you: "this is the song, we are going to do this, this and that".
Lisa-Kaindé: There are people who leave their songs in the studio and when they come back to sing, everything is changed. There is nothing wrong with that, but we wanted to control everything, we wanted to be part of the production. He was great with that because we did not talk about it, it was something that came up. He guides us but never imposes.
Naomi: Sometimes Richard comes with ideas and shows them to us and I say: "No, no, no, that's bad, bad, bad". He says: "ah, ok". It's like that, we talk about it.
Lisa-Kaindé: Sometimes I have ideas, but the two of them tell me "this is fatal", and sometimes with Naomi's ideas, the same thing happens... That's the nice thing about being three [producing]. There are always two who can say no or yes.
Naomi: There is a lot of communication, we talk about everything. And also in the studio we watch movies, we listen to music ... we live. Everything is very creative and at the same time very quiet. It's like a family.
Lisa-Kaindé: When we saw Richard for the second time he told us: "You are going to play for me all the songs you have". Then we had about 30 songs and we played the 30. He made two lists and said: "this one, this one is not, this one...". It turns out that all he liked were the ones we liked!
In other words, there was a connection there ...
Lisa-Kaindé: Yes, but Naomi was the one who said she wanted electronic music on the album.
Naomi: I already knew what I wanted. They told me: "do you know?" And they listened to me and that was the point.
And are you comfortable working with XL Recording? Do you think the road would be different if you worked with a major or with another independent label?
Lisa-Kaindé: Starting with XL Recording was great, because people listen to your music, the press listens to your music.
Naomi: And they do not tell you anything about your music.
Lisa-Kaindé: Yes, when they sign you in XL they do not comment on your music, they do it because they believe in your vision and that is very important for us, because if a label signs us but later in the studio it says: "Look, don´t you want to put a bongo there? "That does not interest us.
In pureness, it can not be said that the Ibeyi are Cuban artists. But who is interested in purity —not them, certainly. The fact is that they have never lost contact. They always return to their homeland, always looking for ways to be updated with what happens in music in Cuba. Naomi, above all, whose best friend lives here and keeps her up to date with the latest hits of reggaeton and reparto. An attentive observer can find them at concerts of Alain Pérez, Cimafunk, or at the Jazz Plaza Festival.
What has been missing, however, are presentations in Cuba. They hardly have one, a concert offered at the Salon Rosado de La Tropical during the ill-fated Festival Musicabana, in May 2016. A brutal concert that removed its audience with its mixture of lewd and mystical sounds, popular and sophisticated, energetic and subtle . As in the Yoruba legend, beings saved from The Death with music.
A "rare and incredible" fire test, in the words of Lisa-Kaindé. On the one hand, they were unknown to most of the public, on the other they carried the heavy title of being the daughters of Angá.
-It was a bit stressful, says Naomi.
-The people stayed waiting first to see what we were doing... —says Lisa-Kaindé.
—We know that the Cuban is a very difficult audience, and if he does not like what is in front of him, he turns and starts talking, he does not care about anything. We said: "Oh, my God, we hope they like it, because if not, what a pity...". In the end we had a great time, but with a lot of stress. Luckily they liked it. Hopefully we can be back soon on a stage here. People think it's as simple as calling four musicians and putting on a piano, but electronic music has its requirements, and it can not be improvised. And if we do, we want to do it well.
When they could have continued on the road to success, they bet on going further, and with the songs of Ash (XL Recordings, 2017) told the world that they are two musicians with universal vocation, without the slightest intention of being pigeonholed. Taking advantage of the initial push, they capitalized on the popularity quickly achieved to incorporate collaborators such as Kamasi Washington, Meshel Ndegeochello and Mala Rodríguez into their productions. They stretched their foot out of the sheet and shook off the label of world music with a rabidly contemporary album full of hip hop, electronics, jazz and something quite similar to reggaeton, where racism, xenophobia and gender equality are discussed. All this before turning 23 years old.
«You have to go to areas where you feel a little uncomfortable»
Regarding the genres: you have a broad spectrum, but the coordinates are quite easy to identify, at least with the work you have done so far (hip hop, electronics, Yoruba music, and R&B). Do you visualize yourself exploring other lands in the future?
Lisa-Kaindé: I've always liked rock, maybe we'll try some day, but I do not think it would be the AC/DC type —wish I love. I like the electric guitar and everything that surrounds it.
Naomi: We think, I do not know, try something a little more hip hop, go beyond what we already did, but that way.
Lisa-Kaindé: I think that when you make a first album you have to have a very strong identity. In the second you have to confirm that identity and go further. And when you do the third you have to propose something new. You can not do the same story three times because people get bored. You have to go beyond what you already did and propose something new. Not everything new, but something, a detail that changes everything.
Naomi: But it also has to be something very organic; we do not think: "let's do this or then that..."
You do not have it pre-designed.
Lisa-Kaindé: No, but we also know that we have to look, it is something you're looking for, it is not that you get up one day and you already have the idea. Well, sometimes it happens like that, but most of the time you have to look for and try things in the studio, go where you're scared. The first was not afraid, the second either. The third one has to scare us. One has to go to areas where he feels a bit uncomfortable.
There has been much talk about whether they are Cuban or not, or whether their music can be considered Cuban or not. Leaving them out of the sound map of Cuba would be not only an injustice to them but, above all, tremendous mutilation to ourselves as a nation, as listeners. They are part of that small platoon that is helping to change the face of Cuban music worldwide. Amid so much hangover from Buena Vista Social Club, Latin jazz and reggaeton, artists like Ibeyi come to show that you do not have to follow the very trite paths or give the obvious answers to be global as well as original.
Do you think you already have your own style? That someone can identify: "this is from Ibeyi"?
Lisa-Kaindé: Oh, yes!, since the first album. People listen to it on the radio and say that's from Ibeyi. That was very important to us. Look, the first words that Richard told us was: "What's your sound?". I remember that I kept thinking: "Eh? Why does he ask that? We already wrote 30 songs, that's enough, why are we going to ask ourselves 'What's our sound?' ". Later I realized that this is "the" question that one has to ask, to which one must find an answer. Well, of two questions, what do you want to say and how is that going to sound, what is your identity.
Naomi: There are many young artists who want to be famous, but they do not know what they want to do, nor how they want to do it. Then they arrive there and eat them, as they do not have ideas, they put ideas in their heads and then they realize that what they did was not what they wanted. That is very dangerous.
Lisa-Kaindé: I think more than talent, you have to know [what you want], and that is what you are looking for. It takes time... and it changes! Change, back and forth. Sometimes you're going to make records that are not going to work because that's how you felt at that moment and people are going to think: "that's tremendous shit". And you're going to do another and people going to love it. And there is also something unfair, which has to do with the right time; it happens that sometimes you are far ahead of your time or very late in your time. For example, I've heard talented, incredible musicians who had ideas similar to James Blake's, but they did not develop them at the right time, and then James Blake came along, and he ate everything... The timing It is very important and that you can not control. I do not like that sometimes, knowing that one is a musician, and of course you have to work hard, but success comes from many parameters that have nothing to do with you. And that is very difficult.
How do you feel with the public? Do you care what the public and the critics say? Or do you do your thing, do your music?
Naomi: Whose critique?
Lisa-Kaindé: Yeah, sure!
Naomi: I care less than Lisa.
Lisa-Kaindé: In Richard's study there is a sign that says "No outside realities". That is, when we are in the studio we do not think about criticism, nor about people. What I do think when I write songs now is that I hear people singing in my head —she sings the chorus of Deadthless: "Whatever happens, whatever happens ... we are deathless" -. I hear it, but that's natural, it's not that I'm thinking "wait, they not going to be able to sing that...". But we try, when we create, not to think about the consequences of what we are creating. For me the public is very important too...
Naomi: Because without them we are nothing.
Lisa-Kaindé: And the moments of great happiness that we live with Ibeyi have always been with an incredible audience. And when you see that the audience knows the songs, and for an hour and a half they let go, they cry, and they dance and they sing... and you see that energy! That is the most beautiful thing in the world. And the criticism... well, I have to learn that it does not affect me so much... Thank God we have very good reviews!
Naomi (laughing): We have one or two bad out there. Not all are good.
Lisa-Kaindé: Thank God, really! Because the two that were bad always made me cry.
Tell me a little about that importance that you give to the visual. Why do they feel that need? (both in the video clips and in the performances of the shows it is seen that they stand out a lot).
Lisa-Kaindé: I think more than musicians we are artists (I always find it hard to say that). We want everything to be fine, and there are things we did that we do not like visually today, and we stay like "...shit! That was not to the point of Ibeyi, that was not fine enough. "
Are you considered stickler, demanding?
Naomi: Uh, very much. With us, above all.
Lisa-Kaindé: And of course, like all musicians, we make mistakes, because "there is no time; You have to do it fast. " You know that the music is like this: "You have to have an idea on Tuesday at ten o'clock" —now we know that if on Tuesday at ten o'clock we do not have the good idea, because one says no and that's it.
"I do not understand how a person walks down the street and sees two girls kissing and can not see that love. I do not understand how a guy who hits his wife thinks that he has the right to do that, that he is superior to her. "
So, have you learned to say "no"? I think that is one of the most difficult things of human beings and also of artists, especially when they are starting.
Naomi: We have always known what we want, and say no when we want to say no. I refer to the musical, because with the visual we have had to learn. It happened with two video clips, which we had to do in a week and there were not the best ideas; they were the best ideas that occurred to us at that time, but later when you see them you realize that they were not good.
Lisa-Kaindé: But the truth is that when I see River, Oyá or Deathless I am delighted, because I know that these videos are not noise, that is really art. We did it with people we love and with whom we have a connection; I think they are videos that are going to stay. And that's what you want, in fifty years look back and be proud of what you did, right?
They are young, they are beautiful, they are ethnically exotic, they are good music by the hand of a powerful label like XL. Of course the networks love them. However, they have an ambiguous relationship with them.
"I feel adoration and hatred for them," says Lisa-Kaindé. "I, for one, compare a lot, it's horrible! The weeks in which I do not go on Instragram I feel great, and the weeks that I go I see all those girls with perfect bodies, with perfect lives, with everything perfect ...
—That's a lie! —Naomi exclaims.
"Of course it's a lie," Lisa replies, "but it's unconscious, and suddenly you feel so bad, and you think your life is crap. And then you realize "no, my life is great !, why do I feel this way?", And it's because you spent 20 minutes watching girls post the perfect profile of their lives. That's why I think it's a very complicated medium. The people who own those companies, their family does not use them; they know it is very dangerous.
We are in a time where there are a lot of social issues (male chauvinism, racism, xenophobia) that are being discussed a lot worldwide, and the discussions on social networks are amplified —sometimes in an exhausting way even. What of all that do you feel that comes to your music? There are quite explicit texts on the last album, but how do you see it?
Lisa-Kaindé: It scares me. Tolerance is a very difficult issue in today's world; sometimes I'm surprised and I do not understand. Just today he talked about that, it's a question of perspectives, and then maybe I do not understand his perspective [of people who commit acts of violence]. But sometimes they surprise me.
Naomi: It depends on how you grow, how you are educated.
Lisa-Kaindé: Yes, and the fears one has. But I do not understand how a cop with a gun kills a young man who has his hand like that (he keeps his hand in his pocket). I do not understand how a person is walking down the street and sees two girls kissing and can not see that love. I do not understand how a guy who hits his wife thinks that he has the right to do that, that he is superior to her. And I do not understand how she can feel inferior to him. Well, now I understand it; I understand that all starts with education and is part of the world for thousands of years, and breaking it is something very hard. Singing about that helps, perhaps? I dont know.
Compared to its previous years, the last months of 2018 and the first months of 2019 have been quite calm. But something has happened. They made a featuring with the Brazilian rapper Emicida. They are part of the sessions of Hamilton's drops, where they arrived summoned by an almost lost message via Twitter of Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator of one of the most acclaimed and iconoclastic musicals of the century. They participated in the recent album that was launched as a complement to Rome, the film by Alfonso Cuarón that we did not stop talking about in 2018. On the way, a collaboration with a rapper that they do not want or can not say anything about. Meanwhile, they dream of the day they get to work with James Blake or Kendrick Lamar (considering what they have been achieved, it does not sound like something too far-fetched) and they think about how they break the cycle with the third album. An album that we only know will be marked by freedom.
Rafa G. Escalona
Certified Journalist. Father of a music magazine.