WHO IS A-WA?
The Yemenite Israeli sister act takes Israel and the Arabic-speaking world by storm
by Anna Isaacs
T he music video opens against a vast, craggy desert. Three women with jet-black hair do the bidding of their watchful, whip-wielding, gray-scruffed patriarch—scrubbing dishes, draping linens, brushing a froth of shaving cream across his jaw. A cutaway shot shows three male counterparts in blue tracksuits and red fez-inspired baseball caps, dancing for a stately hookah-smoking woman.
Then, a shift in tone: The women take off across the landscape in a white Jeep, billowing sand in their wake, having ditched their muted chore clothes for glittering fuchsia abayas. When they reach their destination, they rush up the steps of a palatial home to join the three tracksuited men in their traditional, joyful Yemenite step.
The song is “Habib Galbi”—Arabic for “love of my heart”—and the singers are the sister act A-Wa, Arabic slang for “yes.” The video is right at home on the Facebook page for “Mipsterz”—an online community for self-described “Muslim hipsters,” where the video appeared just after its March 2015 release—and some of the group’s most enthusiastic fans hail from Lebanon, Yemen and Libya.
One could be forgiven for mistaking A-Wa for anyone but who they are: Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim, three Jewish sisters from Israel’s Arava Valley, dominating the Israeli music charts with the first Arabic-language song ever to hit number one. The trio revels in the ambiguity: “We wanted people to be very curious —who are these girls?” says Tair, 32, the eldest. “We wanted people to just listen to the music and confuse them, in a good way.”
The Haim sisters—no relation to the L.A.-native Jewish three-sister band Haim—take their musical cues from family history. Their paternal grandparents were among the nearly 50,000 Yemeni Jews secretly brought to Israel in Operation Magic Carpet in 1949. Growing up in the remote southern desert village of Shaharut—an idyllic but isolated childhood that Tair likens to “Little House on the Prairie”—the girls would often visit their grandparents in Gadera, where they listened to their grandmother sing traditional lullabies and mimicked their grandfather’s Yemeni Arabic pronunciation of Jewish prayers. “For little girls with musical ears like ourselves,” says Tair, “we just fell in love with the music and the groove.”
For many Yemenite Jews, religious music was a male domain, while women—many of whom were illiterate—created their own spiritual world in secular folksong. Their songs were passed down from generation to generation, picking up new flourishes over time. “In a way,” Tair says, “we are continuing the tradition by taking these songs and giving them our own twist.”
That twist includes inspiration from the kibbutzim surrounding Shaharut, where native English speakers from the United States and Canada listened to jazz and other American popular movies and music. The sisters count Singin’ in the Rain, Ella Fitzgerald, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Marley, the Jackson Five and hip-hop among their many influences. A-Wa adds in darbuka (goblet drum) beats, Western vocal harmonies and, of course, a full array of modern and distinctly non-Yemenite instruments.
“We grew up in the desert and we had no borders and everything was open to our imagination,” Tair says. “So we developed our creativity and the ability to dream big, because we had nothing to lose.” Dreams of singing at music festivals around the world took the trio into the mountains, where they sang to imagined crowds of fans. It’s still hard for Tair to believe that today, they’re doing the real thing. “We have to punch [sic] ourselves sometimes,” she says in a thick Israeli accent.
Their ascent to fame began about five years ago, after Tair earned a music degree and returned home to Shaharut to write an album in the desert, and wound up asking her sisters Liron, now 30, and Tagel, now 26, to join her. Collaborating was “natural,” Tair says. After their day jobs, the sisters would record YouTube videos of themselves singing both original and traditional songs.
They sent a demo to Tomer Yosef, a fellow Israeli with Yemenite roots whose band Balkan Beat Box is ubiquitous in dance club remixes the world over. He liked what he heard, and the sisters soon joined him on tour and had him produce their debut album, released in Israel last year. A-Wa has toured through Europe and the U.S., most recently playing at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin.
The video for “Habib Galbi” has now racked up more than three million YouTube views, and the sisters have gained a diverse following that recalls the broad appeal of an artist who could be called their predecessor: the late Ofra Haza, perhaps Israel’s most famous singer, whose haunting vocal trills the sisters closely echo. Haza, too, built a career on a love for traditional Yemenite music, and cultivated an Arab fan base as a rare Mizrahi artist in Israel.
In a time when the threat of boycott looms, A-Wa acknowledges the commercial risks of touring as Israeli musicians. But they also embrace their multifaceted identity—never hiding their Judaism and their home, but never “shouting” it, either, as Tair puts it.
“We are very proud of who we are, but I think that it’s very important for us to make music that anyone can enjoy, anyone with an open ear, and someone that really wants to just listen to something new and fresh and, you know, to have fun,” she says. “Because this is art, you know? It doesn’t matter where it comes from. If it’s good, it’s good.”