On the intro track of French duo Ibeyi‘s self-titled debut album we hear them singing a cappella in Yoruba and it instantly brings to mind “River,” their breakthrough single. Is this their schtick? Will people talk about them as the twin sisters who sing in a Santería-related language? No, and I certainly hope not, since they’re so much more than that.
The album, produced by XL honcho Richard Russell, is a stunning collection of 13 songs inspired by Afro-Cubanism and their own lives, both of which are tightly intertwined. The songs are bare-boned, featuring minimal organic instrumentation, and even fewer synths and samples, provided by Russell. The vocals are the true stars, with sister Lisa-Kaindé on lead vocals and Naomi harmonizing on almost every song. Their voices are velvety and soulful, heart-wrenching when they go to their upper register. Their words produce a sense of intimacy that walks the line between sexy and nostalgic, like on single “Ghosts.” There are also very personal moments, especially on “Yanira,” a heartfelt tribute to an older sister who died.
Rhythm is very important in the music of Ibeyi, and this is no coincidence, since they are daughters of the popular Cuban percussionist Anga Díaz. He makes a small appearance in the form of a sample of his voice on “Think of You,” but his influence can be heard on the entire album. The songs have a jazz and soul feel, an old-school heart, but the production is what gives them a contemporary edge, bringing hip-hop and R&B sounds to the table. “Stranger Love” is their most, say, commercial R&B moment that’s close to what Jesse Ware does. A similar moment occurs toward the end of the album, when “Singles” comes up. Here, Naomi takes the lead vocals, which sounds more innocent than her sister’s. Also present are the two songs from their 2014 EP Oya, including “River.”