Ibeyi: Ash

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A review by Stacey Anderson for Pitchfork.

On their second album, the French-Cuban twins Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Díaz make gorgeous, genre-agnostic meditations on resilience and mindful resistance.
To hear “Deathless,” from Ibeyi’s second album, Ash, is to be thrust headlong into the fearful memory of a young woman of color and feel that cold grip as instantly as she did six years ago. “He said, he said/You’re not clean/You might deal/All the same with that skin,” sings Lisa-Kaindé Díaz, one half of Ibeyi’s sister act, of the police officer who arrested her in France when she was 16. He had assumed she was a dealer or drug addict; he handled her harshly, shouted obscenities in her face, and took her purse.bf3cfca8.jpgThere are creases in Díaz’s high jazz trill here, well-worn trails of dismay; other songs on Ash suggest the past year has deepened them. Yet she and her twin, Naomi, respond to this physical and psychic violation with generosity, echoing SolangeDev Hynes, and other artists who have met today’s emboldened hate with meditations on resilience and mindful resistance. The French-Cuban sisters offer worldly, skyward rallying cries to the distressed that belie their youth. Their genre-agnostic musicality widens the aura of inclusion, twining downtempo electro-soul, hip-hop, jazz, and fervently slapped cajón percussion that nods to West African Yoruba culture. These are sage, heady dialogues, clearly years in the making; the hushed intimidation that opens “Deathless” sprouts into an elated mantra for civil rights warriors past and present (“Whatever happens, whatever happened/We are deathless!”), rippling over plangent sax tones from Kamasi Washington that underscore the sisters’ bedrock spirituality. (In Yoruba, “Ibeyi” is the divine spirit shared between twins.)In Ibeyi’s parsing of grief, packed with irreducible spirit, Ash shares a through line with the pair’s self-titled debut. (XL Records owner Richard Russell produced both.) But while 2015’s Ibeyi mourned the deaths of the twins’ older sister, Yanira, and their father, the Buena Vista Social Club conguero Miguel “Angá” Díaz—praying in Yoruba and English for sanctity and peace, taking a pop-soul plunge in “River”—its successor sticks to a broader repose of idealism. At first, Ibeyi’s bright rhythms can feel deceptively stable, their harmonies uninhibited as they dip into dissonance, but they are deliberate in revealing the depth of their sadness. On “Away, Away,” a young girl looks out her window at a world collapsing, frozen with terror at her looming “fate of flames,” then finds strength as she begins to sing; the Díaz sisters’ voices here have an inverse, aerial power, gloriously fluid as they inch, then glide, along with their hero. In the opening track, “I Carried This for Years,” an eerie sample of a Bulgarian choir cedes to the sisters’ electronically rasped chanting, each repetition of the title landing like a heavier stone.The album’s emotional core, the seven-minute “Transmission/Michaelion,” pads Lisa-Kaindé’s throaty vocals—a soliloquy so stark, so unadorned, it blurs between cathartic and interrogative—with soft, fuzzy synthetic bleats and brisk funk bass from Meshell Ndegeocello; it also features a reading in Spanish from The Diary of Frida Kahlo, partially intoned by the Díaz twins’ mother. Their first song in that language, “Me Voy,” is the album’s most chipper pop moment, riding Naomi’s breezy batà drumming, electronically distilled harmonies, and a silver-tongued spot from the Spanish rapper Mala Rodríguez, who chants, “Cualquiera que sufre ama fuerte” (“Whoever suffers loves hard”).There’s another spoken-word interlude on Ash, a more poignant cameo of sorts: “No Man Is Big Enough for My Arms,” which remixes together lines of speeches by Michelle Obama. Her key quote, rapturously looped several times, was delivered at the New Hampshire 2016 primaries, after footage leaked of a candidate antithetical to her husband bragging about sexual assault: “The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls.” It stirs a deep ache to hear today, and Ibeyi make no pretense otherwise in their somber, glacial vocals, longing audibly for that lost leadership and decency as they sing the title (a phrase from Jennifer Clément’s poetic biography Widow Basquiat). Ibeyi’s bittersweet discourse with the former First Lady, a vicious year removed, is the duo at their finest: weighted by their politicized existence yet protecting the glint of a better world.Listening to Ash, I have been reminded of another French artist who took a bird’s-eye view of a divided world, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Best known as the author of The Little Prince, he was an early mail pilot across Africa and South America, adventures he captured elegantly in his 1939 memoir Wind, Sand and Stars. Lifting off from Toulouse, an early voyager in empty skies, he wrote, “The most wondrous thing was that there on the planet’s curved back, between that magnetic sheet and those stars, stood a human consciousness in which that rain could find reflection as in a mirror. On a pure mineral stratum, a dream is a miracle.” De Saint-Exupéry once crashed in the Sahara, and almost succumbed to the sand; Ibeyi could have laid down, many times over, in the ashes of their idealism. Instead, with the same ascendant spirit, with soaring harmonies and conviction, they continue to smile, and they defy. They rise.

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