Tair, Tagel and Liron Haim are the three sisters who are A-WA, a Jewish Yemenite band that infuses ancient Yemenite melodies with an infectious hip-hop beat and the energy of electronic dance music. Born in Israel, the sisters, who are in their 20s, are the granddaughters of Yemenites who came to Israel in 1949 in a rescue operation called “Magic Carpet.” In that spirit they named their band in honor of the traditional Yemenite celebratory call.
In a recent interview, Tair, the group’s de facto spokeswoman, explained that her paternal grandparents “brought this beautiful tradition of Yemenite music and dance to Israel. We also heard our grandfather’s exact Yemenite pronunciation when he prayed, and my grandmother spoke the Yemeni Arabic dialect to her friends.” The rhythms of her grandparents’ language were as irresistible to her and her sisters as the music they saw performed (and danced to) at weddings. “The women,” said Tair, “used to drum on tin drums. It was like a tribal experience for us as kids. It was very magical. We wanted to explore and learn more about it.”
As the sisters developed their musical talent, Tair recalls: “It felt like music chose us; we were very inspired by Motown groups like the Jackson Five. We discovered their vocal harmonies, but we also listened to Yemenite music and loved that too.”
The sisters brought their music to school in Shaharut, a small town situated in the Arava, Israel’s southern desert. They spent their childhood there on a small ranch that Tair described as “a beautiful place that left you with space for the imagination.” Although the sisters now live in Tel Aviv, they recall their childhood as idyllic. “As Mizrahi Jews, Jews of Arab descent, we never felt the discrimination our grandparents or our father felt. We felt like we were members of an ancient tribe, and artistically we fell in love with this tradition. At school we brought songs and performed them with tin drums. Kids saw it as a cool thing.”
After Tair, the oldest, finished college, the sisters revived their musical heritage by writing original music and singing together. They uploaded their songs—all of them inspired by Yemenite music—to YouTube and received thousands of views. Buoyed by the positive responses from around the world, the sisters formed A-WA and sought a producer.
Their first hit was a reclamation of a Yemenite folksong called “Habib Galbi/Love of My Heart.” They discovered a recording of the song from the 1960s five years ago. “We loved that version,” said Tair, “and we recorded a demo of the three of us singing our interpretation of the song. We sent it to the [Israeli] producer Tomer Yosef and he loved it. That song opened the door for the other songs.”
“Habib Galbi” became the title track of their debut album, a compilation of 12 songs originally created by Yemenite women. Tair explains that the sisters tapped into “an oral tradition that women passed down; the beauty is that it’s secular folklore and used to be accompanied by drumming and dancing. It’s very theatrical. Just like each woman would add and change a melody with a verse, we took these songs and added vocal harmonies, which is a Western element.” Tair described the result as a combination of hip-hop, reggae and the Yemenite music that initially inspired the sisters.
The sisters eventually debuted a music video for “Habib Galbi,” in which they wear bright pink dresses and headscarves and ride across the desert in a white Jeep. There is also a choreographed fight-cum-dance with three young men in blue Adidas tracksuits. The video has had more than 400,000 views on YouTube and was posted on the Mipsterz Facebook page for Muslim hipsters. “We got amazing responses from places in Europe and from places in the Arab world, like Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and, of course, Yemen,” said Tair. “It was heartwarming. We feel very lucky to bring people together. Our music has no borders, which reminds us of the desert where we grew up. No limits, no borders. It’s a gift.”
Sponsored by the Jewish Arts Collaborative, A-WA will bring their music to the Center for Arts at the Armory in Somerville on Thursday, March 24, starting at 8 p.m. Tickets are available in advance and at the door. Click here for more information.