“We can do positive things with ashes. Ashes can fertilize.” These are sanguine and cyclical words about rebirth from an interview with Naomi Díaz that offer hope in the most morbid of realities. After displaying several stages of mourning on Naomi and her twin sister Lisa-Kainde’s introspective and family-focused debut self titled album – that came to terms with the tragic coincidence of losing both your older sister and father within a short period of time – two and a half years later, Ibeyi have decided it’s time to be outward-looking, optimistic and to offer guidance to the woes their growing fanbase might be enduring.
If Ibeyi’s self titled album was evocative of reclusive sisters cradling each other from the world in a darkly lit house with just themselves and their Yoruba cosmology beliefs for company, Ash is the French-Cuban sisters stepping outside, gathering a large troupe of equally-demoralized followers, waving protest banners and pointing their fingers at injustice.
The first evidence of this new found group hug comes from their choice to collaborate with other musicians. Something not evident on their debut. Ash features contemporary jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington, neo-soul bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, Spanish hip-hop singer Mala Rodriguez and Canadian pianist and producer Chilly Gonzales. Like Sevdaliza’s ISON (released in April) it’s a progressive R&B-tinged album unafraid to use samples and speeches to bring to light the frustration of a group.
On the epic-lengthed ‘Transmission/Michaelion’ Ibeyi use an excerpt from The Diary of Frida Kahlo read by Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi’s mother Maya Dagnino – who also co-wrote many tracks to keep it nicely in the family – to bridge the calm and more upbeat parts of the song. Dagnino reads the Spanish words: “Piers para qué los quiero/Si tengo alas pa’volar“, which translates as “Feet, what do I need them for? If I have wings to fly.” Along with Ibeyi’s English words: “We sing our tears dry/facing a clear sky“, it’s one of many songs that attempts to spiritually help people transmit their downbeat energy into positive enthusiasm.
Furthermore, Ibeyi sample a speech from former first lady Michelle Obama during the 2016 American election on ‘No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms‘ that fought back against Donald Trump’s sexist actions. Obama says: “The measure of society is how it treats its women and its girls. Smart, powerful, accomplished young women I’m here because of you.” The noise of crowd cheering and layers of Ibeyi’s vocals shouting words of defiance: “No Man!”, like a gospel choir, it has a euphoric sensibility and attitude that makes ‘Ash’ an impactful album.
The themes of injustice, distrust in the current world and the solution of group unity make it comparable to Michael Jackson’s History album. The sticky rhythm, crowd rallying and subject about police ignorance in ‘Deathless’ is reminiscent of Jackson’s ‘They Don’t Care About Us‘.
It recounts a distressing incident that Lisa-Kaindé experienced in France. When she was sixteen she was forcably approached by police who suspected her of being part of drug gang, simply because of her skin colour. After narrating the racist ordeal, she sings with defiance: “Whatever happens. We are deathless” as an anthem to anybody who has felt weak and helpless. It’s easy to envision it sung passionately with a fist in their air by their crowd at concerts in the forseeable future.
Police cars can be heard on the lead single ‘Away Away’. Although unlike ‘Deathless’, the story is fictional and metaphorical. It’s about a girl who looks out the window and sees the world falling around her. Originally frozen in disenchantment, she finally decides to do something about it, singing: “I don’t give up, baby. I feel the pain but I’m alive.”
This song includes the use of an autotune layer. This is one drastic musical change Ibeyi have adopted on the second album. Admittedly, it adds another depth to the vocal harmonies and combines the modern and traditional tribal aspects of their music, it also devalues the beauty of their pure and humble personalities. It takes away their harmonic uniqueness and replaces it with a sound that threatens to blend in with chart-topping radio-friendly credentials.
The worst case of this is on the skippable ‘Me Voy’. A song that due to bad timing appears to jump on the Spanish-language music zeitgeist bandwagon. While pairing the language with dehumanizing robotic vocals makes it even less astounding.
Although ‘Me Voy’ should be praised for Ibeyi writing words in Spanish for the first time and this tradition of writing in many different languages, significantly Yoruba language, and their continued references to the spirituality of the multi-deity religion – shows that despite buddying up with Beyoncé on a short film for Lemonade and lending their music to celebrity-filled fashion shows – they are still in touch with the roots.
Ash is out on 29th September through XL Recordings.