Ibeyi – Ash Album Review

Ibeyi’s second album Ash is a musical microcosm of contemporary society. The African-Cuban twin sisters distinguish their sound by mixing a multitude of genres, languages and cultures. To quote one of the sisters, Lisa-Kaindé, “Yeah we are definitely using a little bit of jazz, of hip hop music, electronic music, Yoruba, soul music, even pop music, but if I say that, it sounds like nothing.” The album’s “nothingness” comes from its inability to be placed in a box. By incorporating many different styles, Ibeyi has created its own distinguished sound, which is both highly personal and universally empowering.

The album deals with many different themes, such as oppression, feminism, death, love and power. Lisa-Kaindé’s poetic lyrics and mesmerizing melodies are accompanied by her sister Naomi’s fearless and soulful beats. In real life, the twins go together like oil and water, but in their music they are like yin and yang. Growing up in both Paris and Havana, they were always exposed to music. Their father, Angá Diaz, was a famous percussionist who played with the Buena Vista Social Club and their mother often took them to Yoruba choir practice. After their father passed away, Naomi followed in his footsteps by learning how to play the cajón, a percussion instrument from Peru. Around the age of 17, they combined Naomi’s percussion skills with Lisa-Kaindé’s classical piano training and jazz vocals to write their own songs. Their music never fit into a specific box, as they themselves never belonged to only one.

Ash embodies the hope that arises from the spectacular nothing. Ashes both signify death, but according to Lisa-Kaindé also evoke hope, as they can fertilize and create new life. Ibeyi use this idea in their track “Deathless” as a tool of empowerment. The song is based on a racist encounter Lisa-Kaindé had with the police when she was only 16 years old. When thinking back on the experience Lisa-Kaindé says that what bothered her most was not even the officer himself. It was the bystanders who did not do anything to help her. Nevertheless, she is far from bitter about it, as she admits she probably would not have done anything either. It made her realize how powerless people believe they are and so she wrote an anthem to erase this feeling. “Deathless” starts with a haunting bass line and beat, followed by the words:

(He said, he said)
Do you smoke?
What’s your name?
Do you know why I’m here?
(She was, she was)
Innocent, sweet sixteen
Frozen with fear

Then the chorus turns the eerie and anxious tone into a strong and self-assured one:

Whatever happens, whatever happened
(Oh hey)
We are deathless.

The American jazz saxophonist, Kamasi Washington, who collaborated with Ibeyi on this song, reinforces the emergence of fearlessness and strength with his impressive horn arrangement. Lisa-Kaindé said that a fan once perfectly defined the song with the quote, “They buried us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” No matter who you are, “Deathless” tells you that your voice matters and should not be defined by anyone other than yourself.

Ibeyi incorporates multiple languages on the album, including English and Spanish. They also use a fair amount of the Yoruba language, which comes from West Africa and was brought over to Cuba because of the slave trade in the 1700s. As mentioned previously, the sisters were introduced to Yoruba music through choir lessons, where they learned to sing it the way they do on Ash. It is a highly spiritual language and, like Latin, not used for colloquial speech anymore. Even though, most listeners will probably not understand what the lyrics mean, Ibeyi intertwines the words with music in such a way that it evokes emotion. Their song “Valé”, for example, is a lullaby they wrote for their niece, which incorporates the Yoruba language. The words are softly spoken and guided by a steady and soothing rhythm. Using both English and Yoruba in this particular songs speaks to the pride they have for the cultural hybridity that runs through their family.

Instead of relying heavily on metaphors like Ibeyi’s first album does, Ash is more straightforward in expressing its message, incorporating phrases, such as “No man is big enough for my arms” and “When will I learn.” It exudes self-awareness and self-confidence as the tracks seamlessly balance beat and melody. The album includes “Me Voy”, a reggaeton song, as well as “I Carried This for Years”, a track inspired by Bulgarian folklore music while still sounding like one coherent piece, which is a testament to Ibeyi’s fearless, intelligent and passionate writing.

As the world is getting smaller every day, the meeting and mixing of cultures is more common than ever before. Ibeyi establish that you do not have to be one thing or the other, in fact there is great beauty and power in being both. There is exciting potential in the nothing. Instead of inspiring you to build your own box, Ash makes you want to destroy the box entirely. Why waste away your deathless existence by thinking in preconceived shapes? After all, we do live in the 21st century, the age of box extinction.

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