The hip-hop groove of the Yemenite tune

A-Wa, a trio of musical sisters, gleefully take the songs of their heritage into the alternative music world

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Here’s a sound that hasn’t been heard before. The guttural trills of Yemeni Arabic, couched in the text of a traditional women’s song, filtered through the harmonies of American musicals and the stylized rhythms of hip-hop and reggae.

It’s the sound of A-Wa (pronounced Ay Wah, and Arabic for “yes”), a trio of sisters who are about to release their first single, “Habib Galbi,” based on the music they’ve been hearing since birth.

“It’s like we ransacked everything,” said Tair Haim, 31, the eldest, and smallest, of the three. “We’re sisters, and we’re three sisters, we’re Yemenite, we’re from this tiny place down south, and we’re adding hip-hop and reggae to traditional Yemenite music.”

Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim, 31, 29 and 25, are perched close together on an old black leather couch in the Kaboom studio, on the edge of Tel Aviv’s Florentin. They just completed a rehearsal for next week’s gig at Barby, Tel Aviv’s club for local rockers.

The three are the oldest of their parents’ six children, raised on Shaharut, a remote southern farming community in the Arava where they learned to rely on one another.

It was Tair Haim who was first bitten by the performance bug. She got up on a makeshift stage at her seventh birthday party and announced an upcoming performance, to which she graciously invited Liron, the next in line.

Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim, henna-handed, in the desert (photo credit: Luke Brossette Photography)
Liron, Tair and Tagel Haim, henna-handed, in the desert (photo credit: Luke Brossette Photography)

“This was before reality shows,” noted Liron.

“I wanted to be a singer,” said Tair, unnecessarily.

They performed at any opportunity, including Friday afternoons, when the entire family would watch the Egyptian movies on TV (this was before cable and satellite television arrived in Israel). Their mother — who is not Yemenite — would hand them pots and pans as stand-ins for percussion instruments.

“We blossomed at home,” said Liron.

They spent those early childhood years together as there were few kids their age in Shaharut. Their parents were music lovers; their father was from a Yemenite family but loved Greek music. Holidays were spent with their Yemenite grandparents, reciting piyutim, ancient liturgical poems, and hearing the letter ayin pronounced in a way that’s particular to Hebrew-speakers from Arab countries.

“All of that is buried deep inside me,” said Tair.

But their own musical flavor came from a variety of sources, such as their American-born music teacher at the local regional high school. He was a member of the nearby Kibbutz Ketura, a community with a large contingent of American immigrants. That was how the sisters gained their American-accented English, and accessed singers like Judy Garland and the Andrews Sisters.

There are elements of those fifties-era musical giants in Tair Haim’s black bangs and matte lipstick; in Tagel Haim’s A-line skirt and full, wavy hair; in Liron Haim’s sophisticated, assured manner.

It was Tair, the eldest, who first embarked on a musical career. She served in the army’s performance troupe, then earned a music degree at Rimon School of Music, followed by a master’s at Levinsky, a local college. Her sisters, Liron and Tagel, followed different paths, becoming an architect and a designer respectively.

They all ended up back home in Shaharut in 2010, after Tagel completed the army, Liron finished architecture school and Tair had spent seven years studying music and living in Tel Aviv.

That’s how they found themselves singing and writing together each evening, recording and uploading to YouTube videos of English and Hebrew songs they were writing.

“We would get comments, especially because there were touches of Yemenite in the songs,” said Liron. “We didn’t anticipate it.”

It wasn’t the first time they’d sung in Yemenite; it was the language of their paternal grandparents, and they knew the songs from family gatherings. Tair first publicly sang in Yemenite for her high school music matriculation exam, “along with some jazz and ‘Porgy and Bess,’” she said.

Even then, despite feeling somewhat strange about singing in Yemenite, it was also deeply natural for her. “People reacted differently,” she said. “I have a deep connection to this. I sing a lot of different types of music but Yemenite is like being home, it’s my soul.”

The Haim sisters aren’t the first Israeli singers to sing in Yemeni Judeo-Arabic, the dialect particular to Jews from Yemen. There was Ofra Haza, who successfully sang in Yemenite, bridging the divide between Jewish and Arab cultures, as well as Achinoam Nini and other mainstream Israeli singers. Local band Yemen Blues merges ancient melodies with West African rhythms, mambo and funk.

As for the Haim sisters, they decided they were onto something and moved to Ramat Gan together to work on their music. They contacted Tomer Yosef, lead singer of Balkan Beat Box, a band that incorporates Jewish, Balkan and Middle Eastern traditions with some Gypsy punk and electronica. Yosef also produces for other singers.

“We’ve always loved Tomer’s music,” said Tair. “We wanted to meld Yemenite and hiphop and he’s a guy with groove, he does unusual things.”

The A-Wa sisters wanted a Balkan Beat Box-style combination of the Yemenite melded with harmony and overlaid with influences of musicals and jazz and the Jacksons and the Motown sound. Yosef liked what they sent him — a song from their childhood sung completely in Yemeni-Arabic.

“We didn’t know how he’d react,” said Tagel. “But it was like a click for us.”

“He’s like our big brother,” said Tagel.

Once the Haim sisters discovered a repertoire of women’s love and protest songs in Yemeni-Arabic recorded in the 1950s and 1960s by Yemeni singer-songwriter Shlomo Mogaa, they had enough material for a full album.

“We listened to him and we were blown away,” said Liron.

Mogaa was one of the first Yemenites to come to Israel and record the women’s songs as part of a government project.

“The songs could’ve disappeared,” Liron said.

“We felt like we’d found a treasure,” said Tair. “It was very easy to take this music and play with it and make a twist because it’s all based on beat and lovely melodies. It’s very pure, but we add reggae and Caribbean, western harmonies.”

“The Andrews Sisters,” added Tagel.

Mining Mogaa’s historical treasure, A-Wa recorded 12 songs; “Habib Galbi,” the lead single, is being released next week.

They filmed the “Habib Galbi” video in the dunes and sands outside their home community of Shaharut. The sisters seem to float in their hot pink hijabs (designed by Tagel) up the stairs of a fantastical palace — which is the art center of Kibbutz Neot Smadar, just down the road from Shaharut.

The entire Haim family loves what the three sisters are doing, though their father, that lover of Greek music, was surprised that Yemenite music can work in the alternative rock world.

“He’s a second generation Yemenite,” said Liron understandingly. “They wanted to be Israelis.”

“That’s why when you have a dream, you have to believe in it, even if everyone thinks you’re crazy,” said Tair.

But it does help to have sisters.

“We grew up as good friends, without a lot of other kids,” said Tair. “The music always kept us together. Our strength is actually when we sing together, which is what our father always said.”

Pretty in pink, at Neot Smader's Arabian palace in the desert (photo credit: Luke Brossette Photography)
Pretty in pink, at Neot Smader’s Arabian palace in the desert (photo credit: Luke Brossette Photography)

“If we were onstage solo, I’d be texting the others,” said Liron. “But now I don’t need to because we’re all together.”

The three are already working on their next album, banging on their darbuka drums and working on harmonies while washing the dinner dishes.

“It feels like I’m in the exact right place, doing the right thing and it never felt like this before,” said Tair.

“It opens my horizons as a person,” said Liron. “To have other people listen to your voice and they don’t understand what we’re singing, but we’re telling the story of our grandmother.”’

A-Wa is performing at Barby Tel Aviv, April 2, at 8:30, with Tomer Yosef and Shai Tzabari.

Most Popular
read more: