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‘Spell 31,’ Ibeyi’s Mystic Revolution

The French Afro-Cuban twins on harnessing healing powers, the magic of gold and how music and spirituality intertwine

On May 4, 2022
Photo by Sandra Ebert

Spell 31 was born out of a few primordial spells recast during a music session held by Ibeyi, the French Afro-Cuban duo, 27, comprised of sisters Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz. Sacred scriptures like The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead and The Tibetan Book of the Dead made their way to the twins’ consciousness the same day they began crafting the early songs for their upcoming full-length release, produced by Richard Russell. “I jumped for joy and screamed ‘That is magic!’” Lisa-Kaindé said. “It’s about the connection to that knowledge, to those truths and to that power. Protected by the spells, we were ready to dive into our third album by connecting to that power and channeling that magic.”

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On a cloudy spring day in Bushwick, Brooklyn, The Sultan Room’s rooftop was brimming at full capacity. Beautiful art installations and monochrome photography adorned the walls, art made and taken by the two sisters; jewelry and record booths held spaces as did tarot card readers — Lisa-Kaindé among them. By sunset, attendees made their way inside the brightly colored venue, where a combination of hypnotic shamanic chants over trip-hop beats abounded, moments before the multi-hyphenate artists’ arrival to the stage.   

Clad in black velvet and celestial-patterned denim, Ibeyi were a musical force as they led the audience through an early presentation of their new record, Spell 31, which arrives May 6 via XL Recordings. Opening up with “Made of Gold,” their first single, the pair coaxed the crowd into a trance as they crooned hypnotic harmonies while singing themes of death, resistance and magic. Mixing serene avant-pop with riveting Afro-Cuban percussion, Naomi was a powerhouse player at the cajón, keeping the exhilarating rhythm strong, as Lisa-Kaindé pounded prismatic melodies on the keys. 

Online over a Zoom call last month, while the sisters were in London together, the musicians revealed a sort of balanced duality: Lisa-Kaindé’s vibe is magnetic, and her conviction is replete with grit and passion, while Naomi is more reserved, armed with a careful, clairvoyant gaze. Ibeyi spoke to VMP about the teachings they gained from their legendary late father, Miguel “Ánga” Diaz (of Buena Vista Social Club fame), shamanism and how music and spirituality intertwine. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

VMP: “Made of Gold” is both hypnotic and empowering. How did this precious metal inspire the song? 

Lisa-Kaindé: When we wrote “my spell made of gold,” we envisioned liquid gold flowing through our veins, invading us like a golden armor. Gold represents so much, and one of those things is royalty, feeling like you deserve to be full of gold and buried in it. Gold is also alchemy. People are still trying to create it and [don’t] succeed. There’s something quite mysterious about that magic. I have been reading books on psychomagic. It’s an act of theater that would psychologically change wiring in your brain. A lot of it is to bury yourself in gold, it could be in chocolate gold coins, it doesn’t matter, what matters is that your brain would read it as real gold. 

I remember when Naomi came to London a few months ago, I threw gold coins at her because I wanted her to feel what it’s like to feel rich. Not in the sense of money, but in the sense of power, feeling rich from the inside. Gold in the mouth feels like it gives you energy. It does help when we’re traveling and tired. Naomi, do you have your gold tooth on you? 

Naomi: Yes [she said, flashing her gold cap]. Since we started this journey at 18 years old, and making money, we’ve bought a lot of gold jewelry.

read that one of you took a class called “Rhythm, Race, and Revolution” that inspired your song “Sangoma,” whose title refers to musical shamans from Southern Africa.  

Lisa-Kaindé: [The class] was an absolute revelation. I already knew about [the relationship] between revolution and music, but I didn’t know about precise revolutions from various parts of the world. Getting to learn, relearn and go deeper into it reaffirmed my perception in music. I also discovered sangomas through that [class], healers from Southern Africa who heal through song. It’s also about pursuing your faith, because if sangomas don’t pursue healing, they get sick. It’s the idea that you should always walk your own destiny, and not deviate from your gift, which is something that really touched me. Sometimes we’re bad at accepting our [fate]. We might have other plans and say, “This is what I’m going to be.” But sometimes you need to be something else, whether you planned for it or not. For many years, I was trying to do something else, and life would put me back on the right path. Lastly, it taught me that after the revolution comes healing. That’s where I come in, and that’s where I want to be. We were living such difficult years, through the George Floyd and COVID-19 revolutions, and the aftermath. I was studying about it, and feeling everybody’s pain at the same time. So it became clear that it was all about healing, starting with ourselves.  

Unlike native cultures, the Western world has largely been disconnected with intertwining spirituality and popular music, a stark contrast from what you just explained with sangomas. What is your personal approach when you think about spirituality and music? 

Lisa-Kaindé: To show that spirituality is not one thing, and that it is available in many different forms. 

Naomi: You often see one side of what that means. We see spirituality promoted on social media, through crystals, meditation… But for a lot of people, their way of healing is not with that. We’re just saying to [our listeners] what we think and what we need. If they can relate to it, it’s great. It’s also about finding your way to being happy and present. If your way of healing is being in the club twerking at 4 a.m., and feeling your body moving, then that’s amazing. You don’t have to follow everybody’s [approach]. 

Also, the thing with spirituality is that we were born into it. In Cuba, it’s normal. It’s a part of us. So we don’t practice it consciously. If you go to Cuba, there are people who practice it way more than us. I think words made it complicated or scary for people because of the movies. We talk about sangomas, maybe we would say they are witches, but what are witches? They’re healers. But witches are associated with Halloween shit. That [version] doesn’t exist, obviously. 

Lisa-Kaindé: I remember when we were saying that we sing for our dad, we feel connected and talk to our dad’s spirit, people were like, “Do you mean you talk to ghosts?” And we were like, “Yeah, don’t you?” Then they were like, “Not really.” It was shocking to us because that’s a normal Monday afternoon in Cuba. Everybody does that. But other people [honor their dead] in different ways. For example, they go to the graves of their grandparents and put flowers. They cook the meal that their grandma used to make for them, they listen to a song and cry because it reminds them of their partner or they plant a tree in someone’s name. I guess it’s just a way to say that it’s everywhere, that magic is literally part of everyday life. And us singing about it just highlights it. But truly, you have it, everybody has it.

Your father is one of the most iconic Cuban musicians, who’s been very influential in Latin music, who you are also very influenced by. What are some valuable lessons that you learned from him?

Lisa-Kaindé: Being humble is probably the biggest lesson because he was a master of percussion. He was probably one of the two best percussionists in the whole world and he was so nice to everybody, and never pretentious. He had a beautiful balance between knowing his worth — knowing he was one of the best because he worked so hard for it — but also not pushing it into other people’s faces. That’s the big one. Secondly, his freedom in music, and in mixing [styles] that were a part of him. He had DJs coming into his album [sessions] and on tour with him, so that was something that we took on, unconsciously. We make the type of music that we feel is inside, and never allow the world to shape us into just one thing. We are really free in that sense. 

Naomi: He was someone that [also embraced] pop music. He even did a session with Celine Dion. He mixed everything he loved: hip-hop, jazz. The good thing about that is that now we can do whatever, like a complete hip-hop album, or a rock album.

Lisa-Kaindé: Another lesson that has been with us since we were 11 is to tell the people you love that you love them. No one is eternal, people leave faster than we think. There’s no time to play games. If the person doesn’t react the way you want, then move on. I think that many of us are scared of rejection [and] that we lose many years in trying to convince a person that is not our person. That applies with family, friendships and with our lovers.

Naomi: If you want to have a connection with family, friends or a lover, if you want it to be true, you need to be vulnerable. There’s no true love without vulnerability.

   Photo by Sandra Ebert  

You two have a very beautiful and unique connection. You are twins and creative collaborators. What are some things that you learned and admire from one another? 

Lisa-Kaindé: What I appreciate about Naomi is that I would have never done this without her . I would have never done [the Ibeyi project] with anyone else, and I would have not wanted to. It would not have lasted. I really think I found a partner whom I can go the distance with. What has saved us so many times is her quick instinct and spontaneity, like, “Let’s go. Let’s do it. Let’s not think about it.” I might have missed the train, because I would have been like, “Are you sure?” 

Naomi: With me it’s the opposite. [I admire] her reflection, the way that she thinks and takes her time to reflect. 

Please talk about the album cover art. 

Naomi: We wanted something strong. I thought of the idea of having lockets. Lockets were reserved for royalty, white people, there were no Brown or Black people in lockets. Secondly, lockets were for men who went to war. They would leave a picture in a locket for their wives to remember them. We chose this [cover] because for a long time we felt like we were apologizing for being different. We called one of our agents, and he said, “I know the perfect guy who can do the jewelry.” He put us in contact with a Nigerian jeweler, and he made something beautiful from our drawings. The picture was taken by a Brazilian photographer called Rafael Pavarotti. 

Lisa-Kaindé: He understood [our concept] because we have Santería [lineage] and he has Candomblé. There was a connection, even before meeting us. In the back of the locket, we created signs of protection because we felt like this is a new era for us, and we wanted to be protected entering it. So that was also really special.

Your album will be pressed on vinyl. We obviously live in a digital world: exchanging music through emails, online streaming... What connection do you have to tangible music?

Lisa-Kaindé: Such a big connection. The fact that it comes out as a material object is the most important thing, especially because we spent so much time designing it, inside and outside. I also love signing vinyls, it’s one of my favorite things. After gigs, I normally come out and sign them. Every time someone brings their vinyl, it’s almost like they leave with a part of us. I also think vinyl makes you listen to music differently. It makes you take your time to listen to it. You sit down, you put it on. We worked on the audio, too, and we made sure that it sounded exactly like we wanted. We hand-wrote the lyrics, so you can read them while getting into the music. A physical record stays with you forever. I have vinyls and I love them, and our own vinyls. Every time I look at them, I muse, “I can’t believe we made this music.”

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Isabela Raygoza

Isabela Raygoza is a writer, curator and producer who specializes in Latin music both regional and mainstream, and who approaches her work across genres with an eye toward the history that shapes our culture and the culture that shapes our future. She’s lent her pen to Rolling Stone, Billboard, VICE and the Recording Academy/GRAMMYs, among others, and honed her production skills with SoundCloud and Audible.

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