Ibeyi at Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Ibeyi at Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, March 25th, 2015

Mar 28, 2015 Ibeyi
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Ibeyi opened their set at Music Hall of Williamsburg with “Ghosts,” one of the more acoustic tracks on their XL-released self-titled debut album. Handling lead vocals and playing a synthesizer, main songwriter Lisa-Kaindé Díaz‘s hair formed an irregular cloud around her smiling face. Naomi Díaz wore her hair in two long braids and accompanied her fraternal twin on the cajón box drum she straddled. On a stand, two tea lights flickered beside a midi controller.

The songs that followed tended to be a more pronounced blend of the sisters’ traditional Afro-Cuban influences with jazz, hip-hop and electronic beats. Their album refreshes the concept of electro acoustic music by approaching it with the philosophy and attitude of hip-hop. Their electronic side leans toward lowing bass and grime-style beats. The result is spare but dynamic, and sometimes a bit like James Blake remixing Ruben Blades.

“We are Ibeyi. We are French and Cuban. Ibeyi means twins in Yoruban,” Lisa-Kaindé explained early in their set. “When the slaves were shipped to Cuba, the religion, the culture, the chants remained. And we grew up listening to those chants. This is part of what we want to share with you tonight.” She made these introductions clearly and carefully, but the shrieks of appreciation from the very crowded house suggested that many people in the audience were up to speed.

Later, in a break between songs, Lisa told the audience a little bit about the Yoruban spiritual tradition that inspires so much of their music: First, everyone has an orisha, a particular divinity who watches over them. Naomi is a daughter of Changó, an orisha associated with thunder as well as music and drumming. Naomi offered that Lisa is a daughter of Yemaya, an orisha identified with the ocean and motherhood. These revelations were cheered loudly by their multi-ethnic and multi-generational audience.

The veneration of the orishas is little known and often poorly understood by outsiders. For some in the audience, being able to cheer for these young women whose music is so rooted in this culture and who are world-touring pop stars in the making seemed to come with a sense of relief and release, or maybe plain joy. One young man in the audience was dressed in all white: white beanie, white sweats, white sneakers – possibly because he is a recent initiate into the religion.

On the third song of the night, “Mama Says,” Lisa confronted their mother’s grief over the loss of their father, the Cuban percussionist Angá Díaz, in crying tones. Naomi kept the beat, hitting her cajón and knees and snapping her fingers with a precision that might as well have belonged to a drum machine. Sometimes she played a mounted set of hand drums. Always she played using her whole body and her percussion was as expressive as her sister’s vocals.

The duo has an apparently effortless chemistry. Naomi’s softer vocals slide gently into any open spaces around Lisa’s big, clear voice, but surely such balance takes work. At one point, Lisa stopped a song during the intro, declaring “we can do much better than that.” Naomi’s face registered a hint of chagrin, but harmony was restored when, in fact, they did do much better.

Though a few of their songs deal with grief and loss and both women wore long black tunics, the mood was far from funereal. When the moment came to do “River,” they turned their single about spiritual renewal into a party jam. Lisa toyed with the phrasing while Naomi went to the foot of the stage to whip the audience up like an MC.

The mix of of ritual chants and modern popular influences in their music meant that parts of their songs feel like salsa, rumba or Afro-Cuban jazz but slope fluidly into electro soul. One song flowed into the next, from a groovy version of “Oya,” addressing the the orisha who guards the graveyard, to their cover of Jay Electronica’s “Better in Tune with the Infinite,” which has been blogged about by every website that exists. The night became a stream of love and stories about fathers, mothers, lovers, sisters, friends and the good spirits we hope will guide our lives. They sang “Yanira,” for their older sister who passed away, singing “we will meet in heaven,” but it felt like she was in the room, maybe watching from the balcony.

The last song of the set was “Ibeyi.” The twins asked if there were any other twins in the audience and dedicated the song to them, and to every ibeyi. They sang a cappella at the foot of the stage with the audience clapping along deafeningly and singing with them as the house lights came up. In Yoruban culture, twins are believed to have a special connection to the spiritual world. In many cultures, twins are seen in an uncanny, supernatural light, but Ibeyi don’t play on this much. They connected with the audience as people and artists. Leaving the stage before the encore was a mere feint. They came right back to share a warm call and response version of “River” with their fans.

It can be startling when artists bring undiluted spirituality into pop. The invocations certainly intensify the shadowed intimacy of their album, which begins with a song titled “Eleggua,” fittingly because he the orisha who is always propitiated first at the beginning of a ritual. On stage, their performance made it all seem very natural. It embodied the kind of sacredness that can be present at any time or place – even a club, or a pop song.



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