The quote by poet Dinos Christianopolou, side-lined by the Greek literary community in the 1970s because he was gay, was evoked by an Ibeyi fan in response to the YouTube launch of the hit Deathless. The song is part of the second album Ash, released by the Cuban-Venezuelan (born in France) twins Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi in 2017. Powerful jamming at the onset of the piece, mixing machine drum and batá, electronic sound with wood, the twins tackled police brutality and racism in response to personal experiences. The hit brings to light Lisa-Kaindé’s wrongful arrest when she was sixteen years old and living in Paris. Questioned without reason by a policeman whether she smokes, drinks or takes drugs, Lisa-Kaindé’s only crime was her Afro-Cuban heritage evident in her physical appearance. A powerful protest against the public humiliation of a barefoot teenager, with her personal possessions thrown on the ground, the song sets the scene for Ibeyi’s second album, which address other pressing issues in contemporary society.
During their presentation of Ash in London in October 2017 at Shoreditch Town Hall, Ibeyi’s other song No Man Is Big enough for My Arms got audiences actively involved in both the music and the messages the twins conveyed through the lyrics. The song was written around the same time Donald Trump was elected president of the US and “grab them by the pussy” was all over the news. While the title is a quote by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s lover Suzanne Mallouk, Ibeyi requested Michele Obama’s permission to use a statement from her speech in response to Trump’s pussy-grabbing comments in their song lyrics. “The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls” is a declaration of human rights. The statements further urges for the empowerment of women. It is an appeal to all women to live our lives in such a way that we set an example to other women.
While these songs establish clear political views through their stories, it will be limiting to just call the album political. The society we live in is political and Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé are also affected by every-day problems. However, Ash is more than a protest or a political statement against the wrongs of the 21st century. The album is a heart-felt confession, the twins’ reflection on the world today, and an honest communication about Ibeyi’s life and what concerns their hearts and minds.
Sharing their troubling experiences, the twins also open up to who motivates them in life – from family members to artists and poets. Lisa-Kaindé’s song I Want to be More Like You is a loving admiration to the strength of her sister. The song Valé is a lullaby to Ibeyi’s five-year old niece who will one day save the world. The piece is in English and Yoruba, referring back to the importance of one’s cultural belonging and roots. Transmission was inspired by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and her ability to transform pain into something beautiful, and the poet Claudia Rankine and her piece The Citizen exploring her personal experiences of racism. The personal and political are intertwined in Ibeyi’s album Ash, as they are intertwined in life.
Beyond stretching political and personal boundaries, Ibeyi further expanded cultural collaborations within fusion music. The richness of fusion stems from the vast possibilities to borrow from and fuse different genres and traditions, and in this way create new concepts and cultures. While acquainted from the time of the Cold War, it was the first time that Cuba and Bulgaria met musically during Ibeyi’s performance. The evening opened with the Bulgarian folklore song Dragana (a traditional female name) and Slavei (nightingale), part of the repertoire of the popular Mysterious Voices of Bulgaria. The piece was juxtaposed with additional vocals in English, moving on to an explosive percussion.
Subsequently, rhythms travelled between genres and cultures. Singing in Spanish, English and Yoruba, Ibeyi fused jazz, electronic music, hip hop, folk and Afro-Cuban rhythms and instrumentation, including batá, electric piano and Afro-Peruvian cajón. Rooted firmly in their culture, Ibeyi’s repertoire included two pieces from their 2014 EP: Oya, the Santeria Orisha who is a force of change in nature and life, and the hit River, a soul-search and tribute to Cuba’s patron Saint Ochun.
Moving through various rhythms, cultures and traditions reminded of Ibeyi’s own multicultural and international background, of their diverse experiences as musicians and women. The concert felt cathartic, spiritual; invoking our ability to transform negative experiences into stepping stones for growth. From the political to the personal, from the problematic to the inspirational, Ibeyi voiced issues shared by many in contemporary societies around the world. The event was both a protest and an earnest request towards all of us as citizens to act in our immediate environment, our families, homes, neighbourhoods, in order to change the world.
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