A-Wa delivers Yemenite music with a hip-hop beat
A-Wa, a band of three musically talented sisters from Israel, has been steadily gaining a following in the Middle East and Europe. The group brings its dance music to the Skirball Cultural Center on Sept. 25.
Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim (33, 31 and 27, respectively) combine ancient Yemenite melodies from their grandparents’ generation with funky electronic and hip-hop beats. Their band name, the Egyptian Arabic word for “yes,” matches the optimistic and buoyant tone of their fast-paced, catchy pop songs. (And no, they’re not related to the well-known musical sister trio Haim, who hail from the San Fernando Valley.)
Their father’s parents arrived in Israel in 1949 as part of Operation Magic Carpet, which brought 49,000 Jews from Yemen to the new State of Israel. Their mother is of Ukrainian and Moroccan Jewish heritage.
The girls grew up in the small desert town of Shaharut in the far south of Israel. It’s a communal settlement of about 30 families, surrounded by kibbutzim. Their family raised goats, ducks and chickens.
“It was kind of like ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ you know? We used to go barefoot and sing to the wind. We had such a lovely childhood,” Liron said.
The girls discovered music through their parents’ record collection, which ranged from Bob Marley to the Jackson 5. They recall learning about Motown and jazz from an American vocal teacher.
Years later, the sisters all decided to take up music more seriously. They’d been singing traditional Yemenite melodies since childhood, but wanted to give the ancient songs a modern twist, so they sought out a producer. They reached out to Tomer Yosef of the popular Israeli electronic group Balkan Beat Box, who also comes from a Yemenite background.
“We sent him some videos of us — original songs and Yemenite folk songs — and then we started meeting with him and talking about our sound, trying to shape it and talked about the process of recording an album,” Tagel recalled. “We began recording demos in our apartment and sent them to Tomer, and he would leave us notes.”
“Tomer, one day, decided to take our demos and to give it to the Yemenite old women,” Tair, added.
“Like, his ‘tribe,’ he calls it,” Liron said.
“They loved it, and they thought we were from Yemen. Like we were old women from Yemen,” Tair said, with obvious delight.
Yosef reworked the songs to give them a contemporary feel, pulling in like-minded musicians such as Tamir Muskat, Itamar Ziegler, Tom Darom and others. These musicians play contemporary and traditional instruments on tour and on the album, while the sisters sing.
In 2015, A-Wa’s first single, “Habib Galbi,” propelled the sisters into the international spotlight.
“Habib Galbi” means “Love of My Heart,” originally a folk song that they turned into a dance tune. It’s written from the perspective of a woman whose lover has abandoned her. “The women in Yemen couldn’t write or read, and they weren’t allowed to pray with the men. So the only way they could express their feelings and emotions was through those songs. It’s all about their anxieties and difficulties,” Liron said.
The group’s eye-catching video for the song is part of what’s gotten the attention. Shot in their hometown, it shows the girls doing chores while gazing wistfully in the distance. In other scenes, they are wearing flowing pink robes and jetting across sand dunes in a white Jeep, then they dance-battle three young men wearing matching blue Adidas tracksuits. The video has been viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube and became the first song in Arabic to hit No. 1 on the Israeli pop charts.
The sisters’ peaceful and pastoral upbringing may seem surprising given how Israel is usually portrayed in the news these days. It’s also surprising because Mizrahi Jews, who come from Arab or Muslim countries, are often among the poorest and most disenfranchised residents of Israel, and Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East.
While Mizrahim fought for political equality with Ashkenazi Jews for decades, Yemenite music has long had a place in Israel, from Eurovision Contest winner Dana International to the late pop star Ofra Haza. But if you’re not a famous singer, it’s not so easy to be public about your Arab heritage.
But the A-Wa sisters belong to a new generation of Yemini Jews finding inspiration in their Middle Eastern heritage. Other such artists include Shai Tsabari, who sings mostly in Hebrew but with a Yemenite accent; Ravid Kahalani and his band Yemen Blues; and Liron Amram & the Panthers, founded by the son of Aharon Amram (a pioneer of Yemenite music in Israel).
“We get lots of comments from Yemen and Morocco and it’s amazing, that people know that we’re from Israel, and still, they like the music, and they feel connected and they enjoy it,” Tagel said.
Liron, who has a bachelor’s degree in ethnomusicology, discovered a recording of “Habib Galbi” from the 1960s, recorded by the singer Shlomo Moga’av. It was the group’s first time hearing the song, and they were surprised to hear a man singing it; the discovery led them to re-record and reinterpret the song.
“It was like finding a treasure, because these songs that we perform in this album are songs that were created by women in Yemen, and it was like an oral tradition … these songs were only recorded in Israel in the ’50s and ’60s,” Liron said.
A-Wa’s Skirball appearance comes at the end of an eight-stop U.S. tour. They performed at the Echo in Los Angeles in March and followed that show the next day with a set at South by Southwest in Austin.