Apollo Brown Talks Ibeyi’s Ibeyi

On their debut album, these French-Cuban twin sisters sing in English and Yoruba, exploring truths bigger than any one of us, but that unite us all.

As someone who works predominantly as a hip-hop and soul producer, both for myself and other artists, and as a lover of all things even remotely related to music, it’s not often I come across an album that leaves me without words. Ibeyi’s debut album almost did. Why? I’m honestly not sure. But I found myself drawn in by the duo’s minimalist approach. With limited time and space to delve into the group’s super-deep waters, I’ll just talk about what it was about the album that moved me the most.

Ibeyi opens with “Eleggua,” an a capella intro that’s sung in Yoruba, a language that a lot of us are not familiar with. It’s a Nigerian language that is also spoken in Cuba. (It was brought to Cuba in the 1700s via the slave trade.) This was very interesting to me. Obviously, I’m not quite sure what is being said in the song, but you can hear and feel the passion in what the duo are singing. They end the album in a similar manner, with the title track. The term “ibeyi” means “twins” in Yoruba — fitting, considering the group is composed of twin sisters Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Díaz. They were just 19 when they began recording the album, and are the daughters of Cuban percussionist Anga Diaz, who was a member of the famed Buena Vista Social Club.

The intro, which feels like the strike of a match, leads into their lead single and my favorite song on the album, “Oya.” It’s melodic and addicting, its lyrics — in English this time — are captivating and the singing, chants and lyric poetry set the tone for the rest of the journey. While they’ve been compared to Nina Simone and Lauryn Hill, I found the duo’s vocals to resemble Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries. “Ghosts” is the album’s follow-up single, and it deserves the attention. The slowly waking percussion, which is heard throughout the album, gently gives the song’s prayer-like lyrics a feeling of optimism, and the whole song seems to float once the piano makes its entrance. “We ain’t nothing, without love, without love…” they sing, striking a quiet, somber note of loss before the Yoruba chants return. The blend of sounds is seamless within each track, accentuating the duo’s skill and musical diversity.

When I first heard the opening line of “Behind the Curtain” — “Where are you now, my man, my shooter” — it gave me the chills, as if Shirley Bassey were singing the ominous and imposing theme song for a new James Bond film. I’m the type of artist who likes a strong melody, and I loved the use of gentle, naked piano on this song. The Diaz sisters’ voices are so strong and confident, and their lyrics evoke a state of wonder. The minimalist soul-stirring continues on “Mama Says,” as the twins sing, “The man is gone, and mama says she can’t live without him.” Maybe they’re speaking about their own mother after the loss of their percussionist father when they were just 11. The song is heartfelt, and I’m sure a lot of people could relate to the haunting reflection in their words. The song “Faithful” is a perfect example of the deliberate and determined way Ibeyi reel the listener in. The steady progression not only of the music but also the words, which strain and push against every chord change, is beautiful, like a modern-day Les Nubians.

Although it draws on influences far and wide, this music is very niche — it’s not for everyone, but no good music should be. I’ve listened to it top to bottom half a dozen times, and it’s sunk in as something that’s clearly springing from a deep and passionate place. Like a mystic ride down an ancestral river of musical soul, Ibeyi find their connection with listeners by tapping into the universal truths that live inside each of us, but are far beyond any one of us. This album is sure to pique the interest of a new generation searching for its roots, and for music that speaks to their quietly screaming internal aches. Built for those on spiritual journeys, this is a candlelight-and-nag-champa album, one you’ll find your girlfriend playing the next time you go to her place as the sun sets. Ibeyi has introduced me to a new modern sound rooted in all our pasts — a story, a language and a feeling only music can describe.

Apollo Brown is a hip-hop producer whose work obscures the line between classic and modern. Hailing from the boom-bap mecca of Detroit, Apollo grew up listening to a variety of musical genres. Citing influences that range from Seals & Crofts to MOP, from Journey to Wu-Tang, he has cultivated a style that’s distinctly his own. Having collaborated with hip-hop stalwarts like Ras Kass, Red Pill, Ugly Heroes, Guilty Simpson, OC, Danny Brown and Kool G Rap, Apollo Brown has gained recognition and respect in the scene through his signature hard-hitting drums and soulful melodies. Follow him on Twitter here.