Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim — better known as Israeli group A-Wa —have fashioned a blend of darbuka drums, catchy harmonies and hip-hop electronics that deftly and happily transcends the complicated history of Arab-Jewish relations in their home country. With the help of producer Tomer Yosef of Balkan Beat Box, the three sisters (ages 27 to 33) have just released their debut album, Habib Galbi (Love of My Heart), featuring a title track that has gone viral across the Middle East.
In 1949 and 1950, Operation Magic Carpet brought 49,000 Arabic Jews — and their folk music — from Yemen to the new state of Israel. Among the immigrants were the grandparents the Haim sisters who've since reworked traditional Yemenite music into something colorful and liberating
Elder sister Tair Haim — no relation to the California girls — spoke with Rolling Stone from her home in Tel Aviv.
Where's the rest of the group?
I'm sorry my sisters couldn't be here with me. One of them traveled to the south to visit our parents' home in the village of Shaharut. We call it our "little house on the prairie." The other is traveling with her boyfriend.
What was growing up in a little house on the prairie like?
It was amazing. We went around barefoot and were surrounded by goats, chickens, camels and horses. Everything was open to our imaginations because we had to create everything from scratch. We had no borders. All we could see were mountains and beautiful sands. We always wanted to sing and perform as little girls, so we used to go to the mountains and imagine we were performing in a cool festival abroad.
Did you live in a Yemenite community?
No. There were only 30 or so families in our village, and it was surrounded by kibutzim settlements that made Aliyah from the U.K. and U.S. Our vocal teacher was American. She taught the three of us jazz standards and we were very inspired by Motown singers.
Where did you learn the Yemenite songs you sing?
We met the Yemenite community and learned the Yemeni-Arabic dialect when we visited our grandparents in Hadera. We'd hear Yemenite music at weddings.
When did your grandparents emigrate from Yemen?
Our grandparents came to this new country in 1949 and started from nothing. They were only 12 and 13, and they got married on the way. In Yemen they did arranged marriages, and people married very young. They had 10 children, and one of them was our dad. It's crazy, I know.
What music did you listen to growing up?
We stole our parents' vinyl and used to listen to progressive rock like Deep Purple and Pink Floyd. We love psychedelic music of the Sixties and Seventies, and you can hear that in our music. In the Nineties we used to listen to hip-hop on MTV and the radio, which we'd record with our little cassette players.
You studied music in school?I have a BA in music from the Levinsky College for Music and Education in Tel Aviv. Tagel, the youngest, studied graphic design and illustration. She does all the beautiful posters and collages for A-Wa. And Liron studied interior design and is also an architect, like our dad.
Did you always plan on being a musician?
Growing up, I was the kid who would be singing with the traditional Yemenite tin drum. Everybody looked at me like I was really weird, but I knew they really thought I was cool. I always knew that one day I would record an album in the Yemeni dialect, but I didn't know it would be my first album, and with my sisters.
Did Ofra Haza inspire A-Wa?
Of course. We grew up listening to her music and we saw her success in the world. She made Yemenite songs popular and accessible for audiences all over the world. But Aharon Amram is the real pioneer of this beautiful Yemenite music in Israel. When the Yemenites emigrated from Yemen to Israel in the Forties and Fifties, they started recording their songs. Until then, Yemenite music was passed down from one woman to another. It's an oral tradition that was never recorded until it came to Israel.
How faithful are you to the tradition?
In Yemen, men and women lived separate cultural and spiritual lives. The Jewish men would go to synagogue and sing religious songs while the women stayed at home and remained closer to the Arab community. They weren't allowed to participate in the men's services, so they had to create their own folklore and music. Each woman could add, subtract and change parts. It's very flexible material. We feel like we're continuing the tradition by giving it our own touch.
How do you do that?
The songs are folk songs, so a song structure would be like AAAAA — no choruses or introductions. So first we had to shorten them — they're very long — without affecting the story. Then we'd maybe add an intro, like in "Habib Galbi." We added choruses to other songs. So we change it a lot but keep what I believe is most important: the language, dialect, and tribal singing. We also added Motown and jazz harmonies, because in Yemen they sang in unison. The whole production is very electro and hip-hop. We did it with Tomer Yosef, who also lives in Tel Aviv and comes from Yemenite families on both sides.
What other Yemenite-Israeli artists are happening?
There's Shai Tsabari, who sings mostly in Hebrew, with Yemenite pronunciation. Yemen Blues are our friends, and we collaborate sometimes. And there's Liron Amram, the son of Aharon Amram.
Do you identify as a Mizrahi Jew?
Yeah, but I identify as many things. Our father's side is Yemenite but our mother's side is Ashkenazi, and there's a bit of Moroccan and Ukraine. So we have many identities. We are women, musicians, Yemenite, Israeli. One of the lessons in our music is that it's OK to be many things and to celebrate all the parts of who we are.