Meet A-WA, The Israeli Sisters Making Yemenite Folk Go Pop

“We are many things: we are women, we are Yemenite but we are also Israeli.”

October 02, 2015

The video for A-WA's "Habib Galbi" ends with the three Israeli sisters—Tair, Liron, and Tagel Haim—driving through the desert in a white drop-top jeep, dressed in hot pink djallabahs and headscarves. Before their exit through the dunes, they dance with a trio of young men dressed in Adidas tracksuits and bright-red Fez hats—a conceptual match for the sisters' own traditional-dresses-and-high-top-sneakers combination.

"Habib Galbi" is the band's first single—and the title track of their debut album—and since its release back in March it's climbed through the charts and earned props throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It's also an appropriate entry point to their overall vibe—catchy folk songs sung in both Arabic and Yemenite (the language of Yemenite Jews, of which the sisters are descendants), mashed up with electronic music and hip-hop- and reggae-inspired beats. A-WA's sound, singular in the cultures it fuses, was cultivated in collaboration with producer Tomer Yosef, known for his work as part of the noted Israeli band Balkan Beat Box. We caught up with the Haim sisters over Skype from Tel Aviv to talk about what it means to make modern music that's rooted in your past.

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You guys are three sisters out of six siblings. Is the rest of your family musical as well?

TAIR: Everyone in our family got those genes. We have a brother and two little sisters and they all play instruments and sing and dance. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but we grew up in a very musical family; music was always playing in the house, we stole our parents’ records when we were kids.

LIRON: They were like treasures to us. Records from the sixties and…

TAIR: Progressive rock from the seventies.

You were raised in a remote part of Israel, so I was wondering what your upbringing was like, as far as how music impacted you as youth.

TAIR: We grew up in a small village in southern Israel called Shaharut. It’s a very tiny village in the desert, in the middle of nowhere. Growing up, we felt like we had to imagine stuff and create stuff because it was such an amazing landscape around us but it was very isolated. We used to go up to the mountains and just sing out there, into the wind, invent stories.

TAGEL: We started also performing together at school. All along, we had vocal lessons and piano lessons and also theater and dancing.

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Since your family heritage is from Yemen, how do you maintain your connections with previous generations?

LIRON: When we were kids, we used to travel in the holidays to our grandparents’ house and then we met their friends who also immigrated from Yemen into Israel. We used to listen to our grandma talking to her friends when she was making food, and to our grandpa when he was praying—it sounded very musical, because he was praying the Yemenite prayer and it sounds amazing, very melodic.

TAGEL: The whole community was very Yemenite; we got the culture.

LIRON: Also, at weddings and occasions before the bride and groom got married, Yemenite music was always playing and people were dancing in circles, the Yemenite step, drumming the mirwas. We were very curious about it.

I often find that for people who are immigrants—like myself—our impulse is to distance ourselves from our culture a little bit, as a way to protect ourselves. So it’s interesting to hear that you had a natural gravitation towards yours.

TAIR: Exactly. I think our dad, because his parents came from Yemen, maybe he had these instincts to stay back. Like you said, that same reaction to reject traditions that he grew up with and to try to be something else. But for us it came naturally to be open and to be curious about this amazing heritage we have. We belong to a tribe that came from Yemen to Israel, and our grandmother used to tell us old stories. When she was telling us those stories, she was actually translating in her head from Arabic and we could notice that she had this subtle mysteriousness and something interesting about her.

“We used to go up to the mountains and just sing out there, into the wind, invent stories.”—Tair Haim, A-WA

How does your family feel about your work and your success over the last little bit?

LIRON: Our grandmother is really proud of it. She’s always waiting and listening to the radio, waiting for our single to be on it.

TAGEL: And then she cries when she hears or sees us performing on TV and stuff.

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TAIR: I’s like a huge success for her, to see her [grandchildren] doing something that they love and bringing this music out there. And it’s actually encouraging her to speak, to go back in time and tell us more and speak more.

That’s beautiful. Your music bridges your grandmother’s generation with a younger generation. I’ve noticed that that’s something that people have been doing in Latin America and Africa—combining folk sounds with electronic dance culture. How much of that is something that you did intentionally and how much happened naturally?

TAIR: Mostly naturally. We are influenced by many musical styles from reggae to pop to progressive rock and jazz music.

LIRON: So when we started working on this album, we thought it wasn’t interesting bringing the tradition as is; we wanted to add ourselves to it and bring the whole pieces that complete who we are. We are many things: we are women, we are Yemenite but we are also Israeli, we are musicians but… y’know? This combination is really bringing out the whole picture of who we are. We take this folk singing, that sounds like tribal singing, and we just started singing it with hip-hop beats. We had in mind with this whole production that it should be with reggae and hip-hop, and be more kicking and relevant to nowadays.

TAGEL: We really like groove. It’s the beginning of everything. The Jewish Yemenites, they only used to use their voices.

LIRON: And always accompanied by drumming. They perfected the groove and the vocals. The drumming. And also, it’s the same with hip-hop culture. It’s based on a beat and the vocal phrasing.

“Even if they don’t understand the lyrics, the groove make sense.”—Tair Haim, A-WA

You are singing traditional folk songs in Arabic and Yeminite. Were you surprised by your success on the charts?

TAIR: We are getting so many beautiful comments in Israel and also from Arab countries, from the U.S., from Europe. We had a feeling that this music could touch people's hearts because we feel connected to it and people like it, and [it comes] from a very authentic place that people [can] connect to, but it’s beyond our imaginations and expectations now.

What do you hope to accomplish with your music? Do you think about the cross-cultural elements?

LIRON: We want to make people more open-minded; just to listen, it’s a big thing. To open their hearts and ears and be open.

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TAIR: To be open to something and to bring people together. We’re happy that people come up to us after our show and be like, "Wow! You made me feel connected to my family roots, or to this tradition, or to feel at home." Even if they don’t understand the lyrics, the groove make sense. I think that the fact that we came from a very small place made us even more attuned to other cultures and other people and we really love it.


A-WA's debut album, Habib Galbi, is out now.
Meet A-WA, The Israeli Sisters Making Yemenite Folk Go Pop