Inside the Mystical World of The Magical Twins Ibeyi
There was a devil at the gates of the spirits. Everyone gathered to discuss how to overcome the crisis, since nobody could move through the kingdom. One by one, the spirits were defeated and devoured by the devil, until the Ibeyis, “twins” in Yoruba culture. One twin challenged the devil to outdance them, agreeing that whoever tired first would have to meet the terms of the other. The devil agreed, the music started and they started dancing to the rhythm of the drums. Unknown to the Devil, the second twin was hiding closeby, and they were continuously swapping places with each other when they tired. This went on for days until the devil became exhausted and surrendered; the twins told him their terms and he left the town in peace. The Ibeyis entered the town to announce the end of the siege, and the spirits made the twins their leader.
In Yoruba culture, Ibeyi translates to twins but it also means magic. Naomi Diaz and Lisa Kainde – who together make up Ibeyi – told this ritual narrative to show the spiritual significance of twins in Yoruba culture; without the creativity and impulse of the twins the fate of the people could have been very different. Lisa explains that the full power and potency of twins is unleashed when they’re together, that’s when they both make most sense, “People just come up to us know, we don’t need to go to readings, they say, ‘one cup, four hands’, which means that we need to be together to hold this huge thing that we’re creating together.”
The cup that Ibeyi are carrying is brimming with originality – a blend of different cultures from Benin to Cuba, Paris to London – a tincture that leaks out of the boxes we are conditioned to try and put it in. Their sound is familiar with its soul-stirring jazz and meditative chanting, but at the same time, it’s new and unrecognisable. Naomi explains that, up until this point, they have felt the need to apologise “because people didn’t know what box to put us in”. For their third album, released at the beginning of May, Ibeyi step into their power, and celebrate the new, unique language they have created together.
“People just come up to us now, we don’t need to go to readings, they say, ‘one cup, four hands’, which means that we need to be together to hold this huge thing that we’re creating together.” - Naomi
We wanted to shoot Ibeyi in a way that shows the depth of their cultural identity, the same way that their music does, so we asked the duo to bring a piece of art that would normally adorn their walls to help unlock their cultural heritage. Lisa brought an Elegua (the God that owns the pathways between the earth and divine realms); the image pictures a small white child sitting on a chair similar to the one their late father had on his altar when they were growing up.
When Yoruba people were forcibly transported to the Americas from their ancestral homeland stretching from Benin across to Nigeria, slave owners prevented them from praying to their own Gods, so they swapped out Yoruba Gods with Catholic saints to give the illusion of religious assimilation whilst preserving their own culture, but over time these Catholic icons became their Yoruba counterparts and still exist as religious figures today.
“One of those things happened, a sign of the Universe. We were in Texas which has nothing to do with Yoruba people, we stopped at a gas station and I saw it, next to loads of Virgin Marys. I thought, ‘that’s Dad’ and I took it.” - Lisa
Lisa came across the small saint sitting on a chair whilst travelling through the depths of Texas on tour, “One of those things happened, a sign of the Universe. We were in Texas which has nothing to do with Yoruba people, we stopped at a gas station and I saw it, next to loads of Virgin Marys. I thought, ‘that’s Dad’ and I took it.” A conversation with Naomi and Lisa about their journey so far is punctuated with enough serendipity to persuade anyone that they’re following a pre-destined path to exactly where they’re meant to be. When talking about memorable trips, Lisa remembers travelling through Bennin to visit the Door of No Return, where slaves were shipped to Cuba, as well as Brazil, America and beyond. They pulled over for water, the man who served them realised they were twins and told them they had unknowingly stopped in The Land of Twins, and they held a ceremony together.
Making music has taken Ibeyi around the world, from the small jazz cafes of Tokyo to sold-out venues in Rio where fans were hanging from the ceiling singing Yoruba songs word-for-word. Work means travel, and home seems to be a fluid concept with no fixed destination. When I asked them what tastes and smells reminded them of home, Lisa replied, “it depends what home”. Aside from the smell of garlic cooking in their Grandmother’s Parisian kitchen, and the hot petrol-tainted air of Havana, music seems to feel a lot like home for them. When talking about their connection to Yoruba songs, Naomi uses the word home to describe the feeling, “It’s a connection with our Dad who passed away when we were 11, it’s a connection to Cuba, to ourselves, to our Mum who taught us them.” Lisa finished her train of thought, “It’s family. Every time I’m alone and I open my book to start singing them, I go through every single song and I can still hear the harmonies of my mum and sister. I’m never singing them alone. When we’re on stage we sing them with every single person that ever sang those songs.” As well as singing Yoruba prayer songs, they both use French, Spanish and English to express the nuances of their identity,
“There are things I can’t say in English, things I can’t say in French, and things I can’t say in Spanish. There are phrases that are so much more poetic in Spanish than in English, it’s the same in each language. The weight each carries is also different for us….There are places we can only go in one certain language.”
Our conversation shifted to the upcoming album, and the new(ish) world they’re releasing it to, one that seems more informed, open and curious. We talk about their upcoming release Sister 2 Sister, and they both chant the lyrics “here’s how you say Ibeyi”, Lisa says, “It’s time for us as a band to say it’s not that difficult to say Ibeyi, you know, it’s time for the rest of the world to say it back to people too. The world is ready to accept that there are different cultures and we need to be gentler to each other and make a little effort to do the work.” Their third studio album, Spell 31, is layered with stories about magic, love, growth and relationships; in another act of fate, the album will feature collaborations with a host of other artists-cum-friends they have have met on their journey, including Jorja Smith who features on their upcoming single ‘Lavender & Red Roses’, a song about feeling the need to save the people you love, even though they’re pulling you into darkness.