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