Ibeyi’s ‘Ash’ Demands That You Get Free By Letting Go [REVIEW]
British novelist C.S Lewis wrote “the first demand any work of art makes upon us is to surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get get yourself out of the way”. Ibeyi’s gorgeously reflective sophomore album Ash demands such compliance of listeners. The French & Afro-Cuban sibling duo (Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz) follow their critically-acclaimed self-titled debut with a project that explores themes of racial injustice, feminism, survival, defiance, isolation and love. While Ibeyi was a glorious introduction to the duo’s Yoruban roots and Santeria-centered spiritual invocations, Ash is a bit more anchored in the affairs of the tangible world and its turbulent times.
Album opener "I Carried This For Years" demands complete submission to it’s arresting meditative chants and haunting ethereal harmonies. A sample of "Dragan I Slavei" by Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares loops in the background, accompanied by a dramatic and pronounced synth bass. "Away, Away" seamlessly follows; centering Naomi’s bata and cajon percussions, with jazzy synths and harmonious chanting. Lisa sings, "Why should I be racing?/My fate of flames" with such devastatingly beautiful sincerity one can’t help but pose the same question themselves—long after the song ends. "Deathless" is an arresting narration of Lisa-Kaindé’s harrowing encounter with a white French policeman when she was 16 yrs old. Recounting that experience she sings; "Do you smoke?/What's your name?/Do you know why I'm here?/(She was, she was)Innocent/Sweet sixteen/Frozen with fear/You're not clean/You might deal/All the same with that skin." Kamasi Washington’s tenor saxophone brilliantly punctuates her anger and fear while a rousing chorus of defiance asserts, "Whatever happens/whatever happens/we are deathless."
"No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms" presents Ash’s only arguable misfire. Ibeyi’s hypnotic vocals and synchronism act as background players for the sample of an Michelle Obama speech given during a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton. “The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls” That commanding line from the former FLOTUS is looped throughout the track along with other snippets and accentuated with bata percussion. While a sincere celebration of feminist ethos, it’s the most impersonal song on the album. Things quickly recover with "Vale," a lush, heartwarming lullaby and ode to innocence and creation. The mood sharply intensifies with the stunningly minimalist "Waves." On which Naomi achingly belts "My blood, my eyes/My guide, my spine/waves/waves/waves" on the song’s chorus.
"Transmission/Michaelion," the album’s longest offering, is a 6 ½ minute journey that is nothing short of transcendent. Featuring Meshell Ndegeocello on bass and an appearance from the IMDC Choir on the choruses, it’s comprised of two parts: "Part I - Transmission," is the more urgent half. Naomi leads, soulfully singing of revenge, loss, sin, and retribution before receding into brief silence. Excerpts from Frida Kahlo's diary being read by the duo’s mother Maya Dagnino transitions to "Part II - Michaelion"; where Lisa breathlessly croons about the change of the seasons and the mystery of possibility said change presents—all over a percussion-laden uptempo track. American poet Claudia Rankin joins the duo’s melodious chants for "Michaelion’"s interlude. She recites a line from her 2014 book Citizen; An American Lyric: "I don’t know what the water wanted/I don’t know what the water wanted. The outro is another line courtesy of Kahlo’s journal: "Pies para que los quiero si tengo alas pa' volar" which means “Feet—what do I need them for if I have wings to fly?"
"Me Voy (I’m Going)" is sung entirely in Spanish; a cumbia-esque track with infectious synths, auto-tuned vocals, and uptempo melody. Assisted by Spanish rapper Mala Rodriguez, it details the heart wrenching decision to leave a dear lover in pursuit of a better future. It’s the duo’s most pop centered release to date. Pianist Chilli Gonzalez is featured on When Will I Learn, a commanding and percussion heavy song that laments repeated mistakes and Numb -rife with Lisa’s airy vocals, is a vulnerable admission to feelings of isolation and longing. On the title track and the album’s closing number, the duo revisits the Yoruba chanting similarly heard on "Eleggua" from their previous album. Alternating between Yoruba and English, "Ash" is an urgent admission of pain, and a call for rebirth and action.
Completely unencumbered by the conventional, Ash is an album that pushes and pulls; striking and caressing the full gamut of human emotion. It’s painstakingly constructed, evocative and ethereal. Ibeyi doesn’t just create music that strives to transcend boundaries—they create music as if they were never made aware of these boundaries in the first place. While a great many things can be said about its varying components and masterful composition, at its core Ash is simply a breathtaking work of art that inspires nothing less than absolute and splendid surrender from all who are fortunate enough to hear it.
Watch Ibeyi's Video for "Deathless" feat. Kamasi Washington:
Watch Ibeyi's Video for "I Wanna Be Like You":