How modern Jewish singers are keeping an ancient Yemeni tradition alive
TEL AVIV – In some communities in the Middle East, women are often bound by a conservative, patriarchal culture that prevents them from working outside the home and dictates that they take up more traditional roles within the family.
These same confines were once true for women in the Jewish Yemeni community, which thrived in Yemen for more than 2,000 years until modern-day Israel was born in 1948 and most of the Jews left.
During those times, the lives of men and women were quite separate. Men would go to pray in the synagogue and women would stay home with the children. Many women did not learn to read or write and expressed their emotions and concerns through music, passing songs down from grandmother to daughter to granddaughter.
Now, the singing troupe A-Wa – made up of three sisters, Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim, whose grandparents immigrated to Israel from Yemen in 1949 — hopes to revive the almost extinct songs that their female ancestors once sang to each other in the Arabian Peninsula, empowering a new generation of women from across the region.
Of their first song, “Habib Galbi” (Love of My Heart), Tair, the eldest of the three, explained that it was an ancient song not written by one particular person but “passed down by women to their daughters. Each generation of women added new verses.”
To modernize the song’s structure, the sisters made changes. They had to cut down on the lengthy, run-on verses and add a catchy chorus, not typical of Yemeni songs, in order to turn it into a pop song. But they did not change the song’s themes of love and longing, which the sisters say are still relevant today.
It was a long and complicated process, said Tair.
The mix of old and new seems to have worked, however, because the song has drawn more than 2 million views on YouTube and A-Wa was recently named by National Public Radio as one of the top 10 global music acts of 2015.
The Haim sisters are not the first Yemeni Jews from Israel to find global fame. Ofra Haza, the youngest of nine children born in Tel Aviv to immigrants from Yemen, was also popular around the world, as well as in Arab countries, fusing together Eastern and Western sounds. Haza died in 2000 but not before she winning numerous awards for her music.
Another Israeli-Yemeni singer of note is Achinoam Nini (known as Noa in English), who sang the theme song to the Academy Award-winning Italian Holocaust movie “Life is Beautiful” and performs regularly for audiences worldwide.
While the sisters admire such contemporary Israeli-Yemeni female singers, they say it is the artists from even earlier who really inspire them and propelled them to make this ancient Middle Eastern poetry their signature.
“We really love going back to the roots,” said Tair, citing Jewish Yemeni artists popular in Israel such as Bracha Cohen and the Inbal dancers, who were among the first generation of some 50,000 Yemeni Jews to arrive in Israel in the late 1940s and early ’50s.
“We don’t like the phrase old ladies; we call them the queens of the tribe. These women were tribal and simple; they used to sing, drum and dance and are so inspiring,” said Tair.
And the sisters also want to be an empowering force for the another generation of young women across the Middle East.
“We really care about things like that; its really important to us,” said Tair.
And they might already be doing it:
“We got a message from a guy in Yemen. He told us that little girls there look up to us because we present a free-spirited way of being women,” said Liron.