A-Wa: The Israeli Trio Turning Yemenite Tradition Into a Global Groove
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?