Traumatic as the past year has been for those who are tolerant, progressive, and generally interested in making the world a better place, it’s important to remember nothing gets better by giving in to the dark side.
That was very much on the minds of twins Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz when they were working on Ash, the second full-length from their genre-mashing electro project Ibeyi. Reached in New York on a conference call, the sisters acknowledge that the album, although recorded in London, England, was in many ways coloured by the sea change that was starting to take place in America last fall, the optimism and decency of the Barack Obama years giving way to Trumpian anger and hostility.
“While we were recording the American election was going on, so there was this tension in the air,” Lisa-Kaindé notes. “Actually, I think you can feel that in the album. It gave us a lot of energy and a big want to do an album that would sound big and strong and powerful and visceral.”
The Diaz siblings were raised in Paris, France, after being born in Cuba, their dad being Buena Vista Social Club collaborator Miguel “Anga” Diaz. Coming from a country that’s endured decades of isolation and economic hardship has made them more aware than most that you don’t give up the fight when the going gets tough.
With Ash, they’ve produced a record that manages the difficult trick of being thoughtful without being preachy. Songs incorporate everything from chillout-room hip-hop to downtempo electronica to hymnal folk and deal cleverly with issues such as gender politics and racial profiling. “No Man Is Big Enough for My Arms” sets snippets of Michelle Obama speeches to space-drift keys and a soul-sister backing chorus, “Numb” retools Afrobeat in the foggy back alleys of Bristol, and “Me Voy” is reggaeton at its most dialled down.
What shines through is that the Diazes never sound anything less than thrilled to be alive. Asked if they’d be as optimistic if they were writing Ash today, Lisa-Kaindé doesn’t miss a beat with her response.
“I think it would be the same, or even more positive,” Naomi says. “In dark times we really need to realize that we can change things. In order to change things, you have to stay hopeful.”
The women of Ibeyi could have been forgiven for being anything but. There have been moments in their lives that should have left them angry at the world around them. Consider the electro-strafed nightmare “Deathless”, inspired by Lisa-Kaindé being stopped on the street by Paris police for no cause when she was younger. (Sample lyrics include “Do you smoke?/What’s your name?/Do you know why I’m here?” and “Sweet 16, frozen with fear.”)
Rather than stay upset at a system that sees nothing wrong with judging people by the colour of their skin, Naomi suggests the world might be a better place if we all reached out to our fellow humans rather than being afraid of them.
And that is what she loves about Ibeyi: that she and her sister can look out onto the dance floor and see people from different social, political, and economic backgrounds coming together as one harmonious, joyful mass. Music is indeed a powerful tool.
“It’s funny—you can be in Paris in your neighbourhood, your lovely neighbourhood, and then hear about Fox News describing it as a no-go zone,” Lisa-Kaindé says. “The presenter says ‘I’ve been to Afghanistan, I’ve been to Iraq, but really I’m scared in this neighbourhood in Paris.’ Because it’s your neighbourhood, you know they are lying. But then it becomes the truth.
“It always boils down to education, and going to places you don’t know, and to being curious,” she continues. “Fear takes that away from us—it destroys the curiosity of the other. Maybe the fact that we grew up between Cuba and Paris—two completely different worlds—is why we are not afraid of ‘the other’. We all, as human beings, need to unify again and realize that we’re not that different.”
Ibeyi plays the Commodore on Wednesday (November 15).