Music Monday: An Interview with A-WA

Israeli sisters who fuse the power of their cultural past with the beat of the present.

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Israeli trio A-WA's debut album, Habib Galbi, revives the tradition of Yemenite folk songs and chants and fuses it with electro and the historically oral-centric genre of hip-hop. A-WA's members, Tair, Liron, and Tagel Haim, who are also sisters — and yes, also named Haim — reach into the past and conjure stories of their own through the hypnotic trill of the title song "Habib Galbi" and the buzzing hum of "Shamak Zabad Radai."

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I spoke with A-WA shortly after the release of their album about the importance of tradition, the power of Yemenite women, and why celebrating the multiplicity of Middle Eastern female identity is so important.

Dianca Potts: What did you like most about performing and singing together when you were younger?

Tair Haim: Music always had a special place in our family. Both our parents are music lovers, and they exposed us to such great and diverse music. We grew up singing, dancing, and entertaining all the time. We loved making people happy.

DP: How did you discover Yemenite folk music? Which aspects of the genre captivate you most?

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Liron Haim: We discovered Yemenite music, and fell in love with it, when we visited our grandparents on holiday and in family celebrations. Over the years we kept on exploring it, our roots. Yemenite music touches our souls both spiritually and physically. The beautiful melodies, the moving groove, the exotic language, the emotional and honest lyrics, the fragile frills, and the traditional Yemenite steps, all of this makes us feel like home.

DP: What about the ancient oral history of Yemenite women's chanting do you find most empowering?

Tagel Haim: The Jewish women in Yemen were the ones to create the folklore. Men had a separate cultural life and maintained the religious ceremonies and prayers. The women weren't allowed to be part of it, they didn't know how to read or write, and they used to gather and sing to each other about issues that mattered to them. They found a way, an outlet for their emotions, hopes, and desires. They were very honest, daring, and had a great sense of humor.

DP: What would you say were the major musical influences or sources of inspiration for Habib Galbi?

Tagel: Before going in the studio, we recorded many demos in our apartment with the help of our brother who is a sound engineer. We allowed ourselves to bring whatever felt right to us and naturally mixed all of our musical influences together. The fact that Yemenite music is based on rhythm and vocals allowed us to mix it with hip-hop and electronic beats and to play with our voices and add tight harmonies inspired by Motown music. We also listened to very old recordings of Yemenite singers who emigrated from Yemen to Israel in the '50s — their recordings are simple and yet so magical and soulful. We kept the initial recordings very simple and tribal and later on sent them to our producer Tomer Yosef, who knew how to take it to the next level by giving it a much more modern touch.

DP: Could you tell us the story behind your name? It means "yeah," right?

Tair: Right, A-WA is inspired by the Arabic slang aywa, which means "yes." It's also a cheer- up call that you might hear in celebrations. We liked the sound of it and the fact that it's short and positive.

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DP: Is there a particular reaction that you hope for from Habib Galbi's audience?

Liron: That people enjoy the music and dance a lot.

DP: Which track on the album is your favorite?

Liron: It's difficult for us to choose one favorite track because each one is a completely different scene with its own unique melody. "Habib Galbi" is the one that stands out the most and feels like the core of the album. It was the first demo we recorded way back when we were still messing around in our living room. We've known this song from childhood, but singing it together as grown women was more meaningful. It taught us to trust our instincts and creativity, and was incredibly fun.

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DP: Did working together on this album impact your relationship with each other?

Tagel: It definitely made our bond stronger than it was before. We've always been best friends, and we really love singing and creating music together, but we had many challenges along the way, which we handled best together. We don't necessarily agree on everything, but we respect each other, and each one brings her own personality and qualities to the table. The fact that we know each other so well makes it easier for us to collaborate onstage and offstage. We sometimes even have telepathic moments and improvise on the spot when no one really notices it.

DP: The music video for the title track of your album is amazing! Could you talk a bit about your creative vision for the video and your experience filming it?

Tair: It was an amazing experience for us. We brought our team to our parents' house and showed them the village we grew up in. The idea of filming there came after we went on a family vacation and took pics of some locations around the village and sent it to [our producer] Tomer [Yosef]. He was totally blown away and suggested that we shoot our first video clip there because that was the best way to start telling our story. The video shows the transformation of three women who liberate themselves from hard lives of inferiority to lives of freedom, equality, and love.

DP: Your album bridges the gap between so many intersections of identity: generational, cultural, and linguistic. How did working on this project help you explore the complexity of your identities as Middle Eastern women?

Tagel: When we first released the video clip of "Habib Galbi" and posted "Bringing you a fresh sound from the desert" on social media, we didn't tell which desert and which country we came from, because we wanted people to first listen to the music. Our strategy was "Don't tell, don't hide." We did it just to show that it doesn't really matter. We got great comments from all over the world asking us who we are, so eventually we did tell, but then people didn't really care because they loved the music and felt connected to it. One of our messages is that it's OK to be many things and that we should celebrate our many identities. We are women, we are Israeli with Yemeni origin, we're musicians, and we're sisters.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter.

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