“That’s what I like—my bass,” Naomi Diaz says, referring to the low tones of the cajon and bata-cajon she plays. “I want people to hear the sound that I like, to feel the lows, feel the bass. I hate it when you don’t feel anything.”
Naomi and her twin sister, keyboardist/vocalist Lisa-Kaindé Diaz, make up the group Ibeyi (“ee-bay-ee”), which means “twins” in their ancestral language of Yoruba. The duo’s recently released second album, Ash, is a delicious blend of acoustic hand percussion, layered voices, keyboards, and other electronic sounds that intermingle within a mix of Yoruba folk, American soul, French pop, and Afro-Cuban funk. Guest musicians include bassist and singer Meshell Ndegeocello, pianist/electronic artist Chilly Gonzales, modern-jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington, and Spanish hip-hop vocalist Mala Rodríguez.
“We like to use traditional drums like cajon and batas,” Lisa-Kaindé says. “Batas are religious drums. So we take that which is from our culture, those songs and sounds that we’ve heard for so long, and we mix them with new music, music that we listen to every day. That’s an important part of Ibeyi—playing with the past and the future, or with the tradition and the new music.”
“Yeah, it’s a good combination,” Naomi agrees. “There’s not a lot of people that are doing it, actually. It sounds good to have wood and electronic sounds. At some point you don’t even know what [a sound] was. And that’s the fun part—it has to almost be like, Is this a cajon that they lowered, or is this a drum machine?”
“It’s having a good cajon, and a good sound engineer when you play,” Naomi says.
“And you hit it super-hard,” her sister adds.
“Yeah, but that’s my hitting,” Naomi responds. “Some people don’t hit hard and they have a good sound. You just have to find your way to be comfortable. I always start with my right hand. Some people start on their left, some people both. It just has to be comfortable for you. There aren’t really rules.”
Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé are the twenty-three-year-old daughters of the French-Venezuelan vocalist Maya Dagnino and the late Grammy-winning Cuban percussionist Miguel “Angá” Díaz, who played with the legendary Cuban collectives Irakere and Buena Vista Social Club. As we spoke over coffee at Le Café Tournesol, near the twins’ home in Paris, a man recognized them and approached to pay respects. He wanted them to know how much he’d enjoyed getting to spend a few hours with their father when he was playing with pianist Omar Sosa in Lebanon in January of 2006.
The first time anyone can remember Naomi playing a cajon was the day after their father passed away, later that year. The girls were eleven. “She actually played a rhythm,” Lisa recalls. “That’s why I remember it so vividly, because we all were like, ‘What is happening? She’s playing!’ She understood the dynamic of it.”
“I think I didn’t have to really learn,” Naomi says. “It was weird. I learned by myself, then I had a teacher, Miguel y José Ballumbrosio, who’s an amazing cajonero from Peru. With Miguel I learned more and more rhythms, opened my ears to rhythms.”
Naomi says she often thinks of the sounds of the drumkit when creating her parts on cajon. “I listen to a lot of people on the traps,” she explains. “I love the beats of Sheila E. I think of high and low, you know, bass and high notes, and ghost notes.”
“When Naomi first said to me, ‘For Ibeyi I think it’s better with cajon,’ I was like, Yeah,” Lisa recalls. “There’s something about the cajon, because it’s with your hand, it’s with your body, and it’s wood also. So it’s so much more organic and sensual and real. And the groove that she gets is incredible. She really gets to be in the time.”
“Away Away” (the first single from Ash) and “I Wanna Be Like You” feature Naomi’s powerful cajon work, with fluttering ghost notes and triplets. “There’s cajon, and there’s a beat,” Naomi says, “but it’s not a lot. Maybe it sounds full because it goes well together.”
“We wanted something joyous,” Lisa adds. “And Naomi was determined in having more rhythm and more bass, more hip-hop. After two years of touring, you know what experience you want in a live show, so we wanted that movement and energy. We wanted people to dance.”
Ibeyi’s percussion tracks are composed in layers. “It comes really…inadvertently,” Naomi explains. “The rhythm I find at home, and our beats, it’s like we do them when we’re not working, when we’re just playing around with [producer] Richard [Russell]. John [Foyle], the sound engineer, he’s always recording everything, so actually we don’t even know we’re doing the album. We’re just playing around.”
“I feel like the three of us have established a mostly nonverbal studio language for Ibeyi,” Russell explains, “which is that everyone tries out ideas, and if the ideas create excitement in the room, they tend to stay in. That way we end up with the right sounds, and the connection between the live aspects and the sampled or electronic aspects is seamless.
“Naomi plays cajon and batas with real expression,” the producer continues. “I’ve never really tried to direct Naomi’s playing verbally; she already sounded great before I started working with her. But sometimes I will play along, either on my Akai MPC [electronic workstation], on the Roland SPD-S [sampling percussion pad] with sticks, or using acoustic percussion such as woodblocks, and that often creates different directions in her playing. We also had a breakthrough on this album by going back to the most fundamental of all drum machines. I would program a pattern on the [Roland] 808 and Naomi would play along with that, and the results were often spectacular.”
On the track “When Will I Learn,” Naomi gets thunderous tones from the bata-cajon; finger snaps and handclaps, as well as treats from Russell’s samples vault, are put to good use as well. “I often pitch Naomi’s percussion down using the Logic Pitch Shifter [plug-in],” Russell says, “and that’s one of the things that helps the live playing sit in with the electronic sounds. The pitching creates a grainy texture.”
Naomi plays De Gregorio cajons, as her father did (“I wanted a sound as close as possible to the one my dad had,” she says), and her bata-cajon was custom-made by Miguel Ballumbrosio. “It’s not the traditional Cuban batas with skin. It’s all wood, and I love the sound of it. It hurts to slap the wood, but it’s worth the pain. I put a special microphone on the bass drum to make the sound bigger when I play, and that’s it. We like to play with the sounds to blur the lines between acoustic and electric.”