TEL AVIV: Three Israeli sisters have built up a passionate fan base at home and abroad with music where past meets present with a twist: a mix of “Yemenite” folk, hip-hop and Arabic.
Looking rather like heroines from the Arabian Nights — apart from the tennis shoes — the sisters in traditional embroidered dresses who make up the band A-WA recreate a desert party at their energetic concerts.
“We belong to an ancestral tribe, that of our grandparents who left Yemen to emigrate to Israel,” said Tair Haim, at 32 the oldest of the trio that includes Liron, 30, and Tagel, 26.
The three sisters grew up in the desert village of Shaharut in southern Israel, near the borders of Jordan and Egypt, the daughters of an architect and holistic therapist.
They found their musical inspiration in a past that came alive through the women in their family who sang Yemeni folk songs, an oral tradition handed down from generation to generation.
They were discovered by Israeli musician Tomer Yosef of the band Balkan Beat Box and signed on as the opening act at his concerts, before they made their own impact on the music scene and he became their producer.
“I heard traditional Yemenite music for the first time when I was young, at a henna ceremony,” a tradition at Jewish, Arab and Muslim weddings, Tair Haim told AFP.
“I started to get excited about this tradition. I learned the songs by heart. I knew that I wanted to do something with it.”
In a secret operation dubbed “Flying Carpet” between 1949 and 1950, nearly all of Yemen’s 45,000 Jews left to the newly-created state of Israel, the Haim family included.
Israel’s cultural scene — not only in music, but also film and literature — has undergone a recent trend of third-generation Jewish immigrants from Yemen or Morocco returning to their roots.
In the spring of 2015, A-WA posted an online music video of “Habib Galbi” (Arabic for “Love of My Heart”), without mentioning they were Israeli Jews.
Perched on a jeep cruising over vast sands after slipping away from chores for an officer in military uniform sporting a whip, the girls appear in the video wearing bright pink veils and singing in an unidentified Arabic dialect, before joining a dance session with three boys.
“We wanted people to come to us with an open mind,” said Tair Haim. “We just wrote something like, ‘We are bringing you a fresh desert breeze.'”
Army radio, the most listened to in Israel, helped make Habib Galbi a summer hit, a first for a song in Arabic in the Jewish state.
Its “la-la-la-la” refrain has turned into a hit at Israeli marriages, at clubs and on car radios, with enthusiasts trying to replicate the girls’ dance moves — blend of folk dancing and break-dance.
Two million Internet views later, A-WA (pronounced “aywa,” or yes in Arabic) has also attracted a following in the Arab world, according to the sisters.
“It’s incredible that we have so many fans in the Arab world,” said Liron Haim.
In Europe, music festivals and radio stations are also discovering the trio, sometimes referred to as an “Israeli-Yemenite choir”.
“I’ve been involved in the world music scene for 10 years, and something like them has simply been lacking. I’ve never seen anything like it,” their producer Yosef told Haaretz newspaper.
The three sisters — two of whom live together in Tel Aviv — have played several gigs in Europe since last summer.
“We have telepathic moments on stage,” said Liron. “It’s like when we were small and we played together.”
A-WA is “a world of freedom and love and a combination of styles, old and new, traditional and modern, hip-hop and Yemenite folk, and girl power,” Tair said.
“But also a world where guys can feel comfortable in their own skins. It’s a cool and happy world.”