Israel says A-WA – “Yes!” – to singing Yemeni sisters
They’ve unearthed ancient Yemenite melodies, and have combined them with irresistible electronic dance music and hip-hop beats. Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim (not to be confused with Los Angeles’s own three-sister rock band, Haim) named their band A-WA, the Egyptian Arabic word for “yes.”
“It’s a short name, very catchy, positive,” Tair Haim said. “Like something you would call in a celebration to cheer everyone up.”
A-WA’s first single, “Habib Galbi,” is also catchy and positive. In the music video, the young women wear bright pink dresses and head scarves, and ride across the desert in a white jeep. Then they dance-battle three young men wearing matching blue Adidas tracksuits.
Their father’s parents came to Israel from Yemen. When they were little, the sisters sang traditional Yemenite melodies at their school in the tiny village of Shaharut, in the desert of southern Israel.
“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,” Tair said.
That’s not something you hear very often from Mizrahi Jews. They’re Jews who come from Arab or Muslim countries, and have been among the poorest and most disenfranchised residents of Israel. For decades, they fought for equality with European, Ashkenazi Jews.
But the Haim sisters belong to a younger generation who are reclaiming their Middle Eastern heritage. Now, they say, it’s cool to be Mizrahi. What’s more, they’re getting fan mail from all over the Muslim world.
“Yeah, 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,” Tair said.
The band is also following in the footsteps of Ofra Haza, the Israeli singer who brought Yemenite music to global audiences in the 1980s.
The band discovered a recording of “Habib Galbi” from the 1960s, from the singer Shlomo Moga’av. It was their first time hearing the song, and they were surprised to hear a man singing it.
“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,” Tair said. “These songs were only recorded in Israel in the 50s and 60s.”
“Habib Galbi” translates as “Love of My Heart,” but it’s 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,” Liron said. “So the only way they could express their feelings and emotions were through those songs. It’s all about their anxieties and difficulties.”
The sisters wanted to give these ancient songs a modern twist. They needed a producer. And so they sent a demo to Tomer Yosef, a member of the popular Israeli electronic group Balkan Beat Box.
“Tomer, one day, decided to take our demos and to give it to the Yemenite old women,” Tair said. “They loved it and they thought we were from Yemen. Like we were old women from Yemen.”
That was the sound they were going for. The video for “Habib Galbi” has been watched more than 400,000 times on YouTube. It was even posted on the “Mipsterz” (Muslim Hipsters) Facebook page. They plan to release their debut album later this year.