Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim, three sisters raised in a small village in southern Israel, recognized that it would be safer to release their breakout album in Hebrew or English, but instead they decided to record it in Yemeni-Arabic.
“We decided to go with it and do things our own way and, thank God, people are enjoying it and have received it well,” says Tair, the spokesperson for A-Wa.
A-Wa has seen a steady rise to fame in Israel and abroad since last year, when their single Habib Galbi became the first ever full Arabic-language song to top the Israeli charts.
In addition to their success in Israel, A-Wa has begun to cultivate a following in the Arab world and in Europe, and this month, they embark on their debut North American tour, with a performance at Toronto’s Mod Club presented by the Ashkenaz Foundation.
All 12 tracks on the debut album, which was produced by Tomer Yosef of Israeli musical group Balkan Beat Box, are in Yemeni-Arabic, a dialect spoken by Yemeni Jews. Further, all are takes on traditional Yemeni folk songs, but fused with funk, reggae, electronica and hip-hop.
The sisters, whose grandparents went to Israel from Yemen as teenagers in a 1949 rescue operation, grew up exposed to Yemeni music and culture, as well as the Yemeni-Arabic dialect.
Tair recalls going to visit them in their home in the centre of Israel and seeing, “the Yemenite women drumming on tin drums and singing and hearing our grandpa praying with the exact Yemenite pronunciation.”
She said they felt a particular affinity for the original folk songs that form the foundation of their album, as all were part of an oral tradition created and passed on through the generations by Jewish Yemeni women, who were typically illiterate and prohibited from participating in synagogue services with men.
“They created their own folklore. These are secular songs written about love, hatred, their expectations and dreams. It was like an outlet. From generation to generation, one woman would take a song and add a verse or slightly change the melody – that’s the characteristic of the oral tradition,” Tair explained.
The sisters are part of a family of six siblings who grew up in Israel’s Arava Valley, near the Egyptian border.
In a home infused with myriad musical influences, from jazz, R&B and Motown to traditional Greek and Yemeni music, all three sisters studied music and dance and eventually began meeting up at their childhood home to record music, which they would film and upload to YouTube.
It was there that Yosef, who also has Yemeni roots, discovered them and came to collaborate with the sisters on the album.
The music video for Habib Galbi, which Yosef directed and shot in the desert, saw A-Wa go viral, garnering 2.5 million views.
“I think we’re very original and surprising to people,” Tair said. “Because all of a sudden, they’re seeing three young ladies that sing like three old ladies with Yemenite songs, fully in Arabic, and then it tops the charts in Israel. It’s crazy. People are accepting us a lot, and we don’t take that for granted.”
While one might be tempted to read A-Wa’s music as political, given that they’re arguably breaking ground for bringing Arabic and elements of non-Ashkenazi culture to Israel’s mainstream, Tair said, “I do think the Mizrachi culture is more well known and better accepted nowadays. We really just do what we love and what feels right. Rather than a political message I think we bring more of a social message, of freedom, and of encouraging people to be comfortable in their own skin. Also, we want to empower women and bring people together.”
While traditional Yemeni music was heavily vocally-based and not accompanied by instruments other than drums, making it, Tair stressed, “very rhythmic, very groovy,” A-Wa has added diverse genres of music to the songs and vocal harmonies, also not a component of the Yemeni tradition.
“In a way, we feel like we’re continuing on the oral tradition of Yemeni women by taking these folk songs and telling the old stories but with a new perspective, a new twist,” Tair said.
A-Wa peforms at the Mod Club Theatre in Toronto on March 20. For tickets click here or get them at the door.