A Yoruba word meaning “twins”: Meet sisters Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz.
Despite sharing the same background and working together for several years, Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz—the twin sisters behind the band Ibeyi—couldn’t be more different.
They grew up in Paris, spent time living in London and are of Cuban and Venezuelan descent. They speak French and Spanish when they’re together, but sing in English and Yoruba—a Nigerian dialect brought to Cuba through the slave trade. “We were never going to be similar. Why should we be?” says Naomi.
From the get-go, Ibeyi has been a band with global reach. Since releasing a debut album in 2015, they’ve been touring almost constantly, playing everything from festivals to fashion shows. “I think we’ve grown up, but I don’t think we’ve changed,” says Naomi, reflecting on the whirlwind of their late teens and early 20s.
Naomi’s goal is to get crowds dancing. Sitting on top of her cajón—a boxlike percussive instrument—she slaps out the rhythm that drives Ibeyi. Her loyalty is to hip-hop, dancehall and electronica, elements of which she incorporates into production for the band. Lisa, who leads on vocals, is soulful and serene. Her edges feel softer, her presence more grounded.
Yin and yang is the metaphor one might naturally reach for, but the sisters prefer its Yoruba equivalent: Lisa is the daughter of Yemaya, the mothering water goddess, while Naomi is the daughter of Shango, a disruptive spirit of thunder.
One reviewer described the musical output of this collaboration as “doom soul.” It’s an accurate description of Ibeyi’s first album. Weighted by prayers, chants and aching melodic arcs, these early songs were written as the sisters were mourning two deaths: of their father, legendary Buena Vista Social Club percussionist Angá Diaz, and of their older sister, Yanira. “I guess the first album was about us in the past—our father and our sister, us from the ages of 14 to 19,” says Lisa. “I don’t think we could get much more personal than that.”
But doom soul doesn’t begin to capture the intention of the band’s second release. Driven by Naomi’s insistence that the songs should have an “animal energy,” the tempo has been turned up and the focus has been flipped inside out: In the place of ghosts, the sisters are singing about the future. “We are obsessed with artists who create something beautiful with their pain, sorrow and scars,” explains Lisa. She cites the song “Deathless” as an example of this new outward-looking focus. “At first it was a song about a racist encounter with a policeman that I had when I was 16. But really quickly I realized we wanted to write a song for everybody, for when you feel small and little and people are not treating you well and for three minutes you need to feel large and powerful,” she explains. “And I think we needed to hear it, Naomi and I. It’s a little resistance anthem.”
Perhaps Ibeyi also felt compelled to start making music with a public message because they suddenly realized everyone was watching. In April last year, the sisters were swept up in a rush of celebrity when Beyoncé selected them to star alongside her in the video for Lemonade, her visual album, which drew heavily on Yoruba culture in its imagery. It prompted a flush of mainstream interest in the Diaz sisters and their roots. “It’s definitely something amazing, that Beyoncé would have been touched by Yoruba culture and would have wanted to work with it,” Lisa says of the collaboration.
Shortly after, they opened Chanel’s cruise collection show in Havana. Despite having been born in Paris, the sisters lived in the Cuban capital as children and still visit frequently. Did they feel at all uneasy about the arrival of such a huge, high-end brand in the previously isolated country? Lisa says not. “When we learned we were going to open the show we were quite surprised. We thought if they’re asking us, French Cubans, to open a Chanel show singing Yoruba then they must really want to respect Cuba,” she says. “And seeing how our friends reacted knowing that such an old and amazing fashion house would come to Cuba and share that moment with them was incredible.”
It was a striking moment. In the dusky light of early evening, the sisters appeared at the top of the crowd-lined Paseo del Prado in downtown Havana. Chanel had dressed them according to their individual styles—Lisa in a crushed pink dress, Naomi in a silver bomber jacket and flares. Somehow, as in their music, this odd combination worked perfectly. The twins looked toward each other, then out into the crowds, and set off down the runway singing.
Words:Harriet Fitch Little