Album Review: The Yoruba Experience of Ibeyi’s Sophomore, Ash

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Compared to the Nigerian Lijadu Sisters who found fame in the ’80s, the French-Cuban musical duo, Ibeyi, are definitely in a league of their own. Their debut self-titled album courted a strong sense of place and ancestry; little wonder it launched  their prodigious talent on a global scale. A confluence of languages, experiences and style, at the core of their music is a love and a longing for the Yoruba tradition. Every so often, the sisters chant in an antiquated Yoruba that still invokes longing and wistful affection.

Ash, their second album, explores the same direction as their first. Stylistically, the music maintains its sparseness and retains its spark. The well-modulated vocal skill of the duo carries well on throughout the track list, standing out firm as a musical instrument in its own right. It is only a matter of blessing that the twins punctuate their clear vocals with additional skills: Naomi Diaz strikes the bata drum while Lisa-Kaindé Diaz plays the piano.

Ash begins disquietingly with the song, I carried this for years. It unsettles and soothes you in equal parts. Soon enough it is obvious that this album comes from a place of communal suffering and personal feminine convictions. Personal convictions are reinforced by the presence of two women howling in recognizable phonemes.

The Yoruba listener in Lagos may not share their experiences but he or she recognises this common tongue, this ancestry that is achingly familiar. The middle passage happened a long time ago, but the cultural erasure of slavery was a less successful project than the physical ferrying of people of black origin to distant lands. Today, music of black origin filters back into Africa rather seamlessly, because borders have become arbitrary and collective communal experiences also court that of the individual.

Here is the triumph of Ibeyi’s second album, Ash: it deepens the conversation about place and memory. It dwells on  the invocation of the self. All the songs seem powered by a sense of self-determination, a rejection of the status quo, a purging—perhaps this is why the music is obsessed with water.

No civilisation is complete without a body of water in sight. Water remains relevant to this music because music demonstrates fluidity. In a sense it is the ambience of water that matters, in another sense it is the amphibious possibilities of water  that matters.

The music hardly fashions itself for dance except when the groove of the percussion occasionally finds kinship in that Yoruba vivacious tendency which has somewhat become the contemporary norm (see the Lagos Owambe). Perhaps, on a closer examination, this music unsettles more than it soothes.

Deathless, featuring Kamsasi Washington’s subtle horns, is accompanied by the insistent percussion signature of Ibeyi’s sound, carries a defiant message. Channelling personal experiences of a racial nature, this protest is carried by its assured unambiguity.

On Ash, it is obvious there has been growth, both personal and musical, since 2015 when they released their debut.  However, Ibeyi’s music has shifted more to the side than forward. Now more confident in their style, they are more willing to fuse rhythms from other music genres and even experiment with spoken-word (poetry) for its socially conscious values. The back bone of their music remains that sparse acoustic flavour intricately welded with their pastiche of experiences.

Listening to the Ibeyi second album, Ash, is a deep experience for the Yoruba. Reasonis that this music is taken from somewhere within one’s culture. This music, sparse and grandiose, percussive and purposeful, is ritualistic both in principle and practice.

Music Critic. Dancer. Poet

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