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Ash (XL)

Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz have pulled off a rare balancing act with their second album. It’s not the best thing about the record but it is its most striking aspect.

As Taylor Swift is finding out now, even more forcefully than a year ago when she was noticeable in her attempts not to be noticed, it is hard to create art at the moment without reference to the existential and experiential state of the world. To wit, one Donald Trump (though you could throw in black lives matter, refugees and climate to name but three).

Save for the buffoons who tied themselves to the Trump mast back then (but have been relatively muted post-election), such as Kid “I wanna be a senator mom!” Rock, Ted “I wanna be mentioned anywhere again” Nugent and Kanye “look at me, look at me” West, artistic commentary has been heavily weighed to twin emotions: resistance and despair.

Those who have tried for the “hey, let’s party, what’s a Trump?, I’m reliving 2015’s feud” angle have at best been sidelined and at worst been Swiftly smacked down for irrelevancy.

What the Diaz sisters have attempted is something which takes in resistance and defiance, that carries a lament for what we are doing to each other, but offers a note of optimism which is neither starry-eyed nor flippant, just strong.

Ash is not an album on the upbeat: you won’t mistake it for Look What You Made Me Do; there will be no dancing to it and one of the most compelling moments is the spare, barely moving Transmission where, joined by Meshell Ndegeocello, the Diaz sisters bring something of an African lament as they sing “we sing and our tears dry/Facing a clear sky”.

It is measured and spaced, like crooning Bat For Lashes and meditative Bjork given their run of African and South American percussion and sliding basslines.

But it feels on an upswing, even in a song such as Numb, a slow unfurling over a Portishead-like foundation that feels like walk through an undulating field, where the narrator is “Numb, I ache for home/Protect me” but comfort comes in something spiritual as much as physical where “I feel you walking by my side/Take my hand/I’ll save myself”.

Take Deathless, which may recount an encounter one of the Afro-Cuban/Venezuelan siblings (“She was, she was/Innocent/Sweet 16/Frozen with fear”) had with a policeman, but in any case is an encounter all too familiar for anyone of colour, whether in Paris, where the Diazs live, or Kansas City, Waterloo or Charlottesville.

“He said, he said/You’re not clean/You might deal/All the same with that skin,” they sing as Kamasi Washington’s saxophone periodically circles the scene whose rhythm is hand drums and unease. “Whatever happens/Whatever happened/We are deathless.”

Or more powerfully, there’s No Man’s Big Enough For My Arms where excerpts from a speech given by Michelle Obama (“The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls”) are both punctuation and inspiration.

The call and response with Obama has them singing “won’t stand till … won’t be shamed … we can fight” to her statements of “I am here because girls like you inspire me … your story is my story …. they should make their voices heard in the world.”

Having already sung in English, French and the Yoruba language of their Nigerian roots (ibeyi means twins in Yoruba), twins Lisa-Kainde (who is the lead vocalist) and Naomi (who is the principal percussionist/instrumentalist) add Spanish, here.

It’s a rounding out of influences as much as cultures and a reminder of the universality – and for that matter, given their references to the diaries of Freda Kahlo, timelessness – of their subjects.

But then this is the generation spawned by those who grew up with Neneh Cherry, Lauryn Hill and Oumou Sangare rather than Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone and Betty Davis. It’s the next stage, the continuation, the strong resistance and the equally strong belief in a victory.

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