A-WA plays at the Chutzpah! Festival on March 12. (photo by Tal Givony)
For a breakup song, “Habib Galbi” is pretty darn upbeat. And the three women in the video – who are singing of a lover who has left – don’t seem too crushed. In fact, they end up dancing the Yemenite step with three young men in tracksuits and baseball caps, who seem to have popped in from a hip-hop video. Colorful clothing contrasts with bleak desert, a traditional melody pulses with a pronounced electronic beat. In a word, A-WA.
The three women are sisters Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim. They hail from the village of Shaharut in southern Israel. The video for the title track of their first CD was filmed nearby, though the sisters have been based in Tel Aviv for about five years now. “Tel Aviv is one of our favorite cities in the world and one of the coolest places in terms of culture, food, fashion and music,” they told the Independent in an email interview.
And they have been to many cities in recent years, touring all over Israel, Europe and now North America. On March 12, they perform at Biltmore Cabaret as part of the Chutzpah! Festival. The week later they’re in Toronto. The only other place they’ve performed in Canada to date is Montreal. “We had so much fun and we can’t wait to be back again!” they said.
A-WA’s CD Habib Galbi (The Eighth Note, 2015) is described as “electronic, funk/soul, folk, world and country”; its style, “Afrobeat.” Produced by Tomer Yosef of Balkan Beat Box, it comprises 12 traditional Yemenite songs that have been modernized with the help of Yosef’s unique vision, for sure, but the Haim sisters grew up listening to, creating and/or performing an eclectic musical mix, from “Greek music, Yemenite music, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, reggae, progressive rock and more,” according to their website. And they grew up in a culturally mixed household, with their father’s parents having come to Israel from Yemen and their mother being of Ukrainian and Moroccan heritage.
“We grew up in a very musical family,” they explained to the Independent. “Our parents are both music lovers and they used to play records around the house all the time; a lot of Middle Eastern stuff, but also a lot of great pop from the West. Our dad used to play his bouzouki and guitar every day – he’s obsessed with old Greek music. We have one brother and two younger sisters and they all sing and play instruments. Our brother is a sound engineer and he helped us from the very beginning to record demos for the album. Our littlest sister, Tzlil, is working on composing the film score of her dreams.”
When the sisters heard the recording by Yemeni singer Shlomo Moga’a of “Habib Galbi,” they were hooked. “From there,” reads their website, “a door was opened [to] a hidden treasure of ancient Yemenite women’s chanting, that was passed from generation to generation for centuries and has been recorded a few times. Moga’a was one of the only chief curators of these songs and after passing has left a legacy just waiting to be discovered.”
“When we released the track ‘Habib Galbi,’ we had no idea how people would react to it, but we loved it and wanted to share it with the world,” the sisters told the Independent. “We always had a good feeling but the fact that it went viral so fast and reached so many people worldwide is still overwhelming for us. It was such an awesome surprise!”
In an August 2015 article in the Forward, writer Madison Margolin describes A-WA – pronounced Ay-Wah, and meaning yes or yeah in Arabic – as “part of a movement that celebrates Jewish-Israeli cultural roots in Arabic. Now, after decades of discrimination, the younger generation of Mizrahim is rediscovering their Jewish ethnic identity as Middle Easterners and reclaiming their heritage.”
“It seems like there is a revival of Mizrahi culture and also a longing for the magic and simplicity of old times, not only in Israel, but in the whole world, and we think it’s great,” the sisters told the Independent. “People feel a strong desire to explore their histories, especially artists, who are constantly seeking inspiration from their roots. For us, Yemenite culture was always really fascinating and something we are very proud of.”
The sisters said that, in school, they all took dance, theatre, art and voice lessons, and performed as much as they could around the area. But then they went their separate ways for a spell. Tair got a BA in music and did her master’s at Levinsky College of Education, Liron got a degree in architecture and interior design, and Tagel studied illustration and visual communication.
“We started A-WA,” they said, “because we were always already playing music together and just wanted to keep creating, so the project was born. Music was always our passion and having our own band is a dream come true. We actually are best friends (really!) so working together is a lot of fun and it keeps our bond strong.”
About touring, they said, “Being on tour means having a very dynamic schedule with long hours of traveling, but the chance to meet new people, see cool places for the first time, expand our own perspectives, and opportunities to try a lot of different food, make it all worth it. It is also really challenging because of the feeling of being away from our home and family and close friends, but, in a way, it keeps us and the whole band very united.”
While they’ve already started working on their next album, the sisters said, “We’re mainly focused right now on the release of our debut Habib Galbi in the U.S. and Europe, but, in the meantime,” they admitted, “we’re already jotting down songs for the next album and finishing up collaborations with some musicians we’re really excited about. We will always keep true to our funky Yemenite sound and might mix in some English stuff, but as for the Greek” – the music their father loves so much – “we’ll have to wait and see.”
For more on A-WA, visit a-wamusic.com. Their March 12 performance at Biltmore Cabaret, 2755 Prince Edward St., starts at 8:30 p.m. For tickets ($29/$25/$21), call 604-257-5145 or visit chutzpahfestival.com.