Centered Stage: Ibeyi in Boston

Ibeyi took the stage at the Royale in Boston on October 3rd carrying unlit candles. They lit them, placed one on either side of the stage, and faced each other center stage before beginning  to sing, unison lines breaking into held interval harmonies. Neither of us could recall a concert beginning with such physically centered intentionality. By singing to each other, they framed their concert as a performance for not just the audience, but also each other. We felt lucky that they shared their intensely personal and culturally significant music with us.

When the song came to an end, they faced and addressed the audience. They told us that “Ibeyi” means “twin” in Yoruba, a West African language spoken primarily in Nigeria and Benin. Ibeyi is the musical duo formed by twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz. Growing up in Paris, France, they learned the songs of their Yoruba heritage from their father, Agna Diaz, himself a famous musician. Furthermore, they explained that their ancestors were taken from West Africa by the trans-Atlantic slave trade and deposited in Cuba to work in the colonies. Their music thus incorporates African, Cuban, and French influences, as they do themselves.

How many concerts these days in the U.S. begin with a condensed lesson on the slave trade, colonialism, and the African Diaspora? As far as we know (though we could be going to the wrong concerts), not many. In fact, just one. This, in short, is why you should care about Ibeyi.

As a band, Ibeyi has gained recognition on the international music scene over the past two years with the release of their EP Oya and their self-titled debut album. They were featured on NPR’s All Songs Considered and interviewed by influential radio DJ Ebro on his show. Among their popular influences, they mention Frank Ocean, Nina Simone, Meshell Ndegeocello, James Blake, and King Krule. Inspiration from all of these musicians can be heard in Ibeyi’s sparse, engrossing, and wholly unique sound.

Both Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé sing, and stark open intervals provide one of the unifying sonic threads through their songs. Their deft harmonization places them squarely within one of our favorite sub-genres: creepy sibling/twin music (if this sounds like your cup of tea, check out Phil and Tim Hanseroth, Tegan and Sara, and Secret Sisters). They are also both instrumentalists. Lisa-Kaindé plays electric keyboard, and Naomi plays percussion – cajon, batas, and her own body – to great effect. A recurring slow triplet or two-against-three rhythm is the other main sound tying their works together. Behind them a sequence of visual projections played on a screen. These were an intriguing collection of natural images, stylized abstract body figures, and deserted cityscapes that together created a thoughtful, reflective atmosphere. As audience members, we could see the general connection to the music, but we wondered about the stories behind those specific images. The visual finale came when, after their last number, they picked up the candles they’d carried onstage at the beginning of the show and blew them out in unison as the lights cut to black.

In addition to being outright beautiful, Ibeyi’s music and performances are profoundly significant. Their intentional framing of the show and unapologetic explanation of their history grounds them culturally. Their songs “Mama Says,” “Think of You,” and “Yanira” – all addressed to members of their immediate family – emphasize the bonds of kinship and the joy and pain of those connections. What’s more, when we saw them in Boston, they stepped away from their instruments at multiple points in the set to dance to their own music (at one point incorporating the Whip and the Nae Nae to the delight of the audience) and to sing directly towards one another. By directing the visual and auditory focus, this literally centers them and their voices. How often in mainstream culture are Black women, their pleasure, and their voices centered?

To hear more from Ibeyi, check out their guest DJ session on Alt.Latino and their curated Spotify playlists.

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