The Israeli sisters’ sophomore album celebrates their Yemenite heritage. It also sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard.
A-WA (pronounced AY-wah) is the hip-hop, pop, and electronic fusion project of Yemenite-Israeli sisters Tair, Liron, and Tagel Haim. As A-WA, the Haim sisters draw on their Yemenite heritage to craft rhythmic dance tracks that celebrate female empowerment and honor the history of the Mizrahi Jews in the Middle East.
The album’s first single, “Mudbira,” builds on A-WA’s foundation of harmonized Yemeni Arabic vocals, throbbing drums, and plucked strings. It seamlessly combines indigenous and electronic elements, calling to mind influences as diverse as reggae, R&B, surf rock, and, of course, traditional Yemenite folk music.
Ahead of A-WA’s upcoming sold-out show at Baby’s All Right on February 26, AdHoc spoke to Tair—the eldest sister—about A-WA’s childhood in Shaharut, their Yemenite heritage, and BAYTI FI RASI, which is out May 31 via S-Curve Records.
AdHoc: You’re from Shaharut, a small village in Israel. Can you tell us a little bit about growing up there? How has that place influenced A-WA’s music?
Tair Haim: Sharahut means “youth.” [It’s] a small desert village in southern Israel. It’s a beautiful village on a mountain. We grew up there without many kids around, so we grew up to be best friends, and we had to invent everything we wanted. We developed our creativity. And we always had this dream of becoming international singers and performers, so we would go out to the mountains and sing and [develop] our harmonies, inspired by motown singers. We really loved the Jackson 5 and musical theater. The kibbutzim around [had] native [English] speakers, so our vocal coach taught us jazz standards. We [had] this influence of American music.
Growing up in a small place like [Shaharut]—surrounded by animals such as horses and goats and chickens—it was a very magical childhood. We really enjoyed it, but it felt like we were in a bubble and we were curious about the world outside. I remember when MTV came out. We were fascinated by it and started to listen to hip-hop [artists] like Outkast and Missy Elliott and Pharrell Williams and Jay-Z. We really loved hip-hop. It reminded us [of] Yemenite music, which is a simple music, based on rhythm and vocals.
You’ve said before that you connected to the Yemenite community by visiting your grandparents in Hadera. How did Hadera differ from home?
The people [in Shaharut] were from many places in the world. Israel in general is a country of immigrants, so you can find people that—like Mizrahi Jews—came from Arab countries, and you can find Ashkenazi people that came from Europe and the [United] States. Shaharut was a mix of people, and it was about 30 families. But when we went out to visit our grandparents, mostly [for] holidays and on family vacations such as weddings and other Yemenite ceremonies, we were exposed to the Yemenite community, to our grandma’s friends, and all the aunts and uncles.
We [would] celebrate the henna ceremony. It’s a ceremony that you attend before the wedding; the bride and groom celebrate with many flowers and Yemenite music and Yemenite food. For us it was a special event, because we fell in love with Yemenite music. We saw all the grandmas drumming on tin drums, which is an improvised drum, and it felt like we [were] part of an ancient tribe that came all the way from Yemen to Israel, and we were a new generation. [This] was a big inspiration, and we started milking our parents and grandparents, asking questions about the Yemenite traditions.
Have you ever sang in other Hebrew or Arabic dialects, or other languages?
No. This dialect that our grandparents spoke is a dialect of Jews—of Yemenite Jews—so it’s like Arabic, because it’s like the language that people spoke in Yemen, but with a little bit of Hebrew. It’s a mix. In Arabic, in general, you have so many dialects. People coming from Egypt speak a bit different than people that live in Lebanon. Even in Yemen, you have some regions that speak a bit different than other places.
You’ve said before that your father encouraged you to play Greek music. Why do you think he did that?
Our dad [belongs to] the first generation in Israel. He was born in Israel. He grew up listening to Yemenite music, of course, but he also fell in love with Greek music and Israeli music, and I think he wanted to fit in, to be a local. He wasn’t wearing his identity proudly, like we do. Now our dad is so proud of us that he is going back and listening to Yemenite music even more than he did before.
Where are you based now?
Now we’re based in Tel Aviv. I live with my husband in Ramat Aviv, which is in northern Tel Aviv, and Liron and Tagel live very close by, in southern Tel Aviv. But we go to visit out parents [in Shaharut] every once in a while. It feels like the place where everything started. It’s very Genesis. I don’t know how to describe it, but imagine that you go out and you don’t see stores [or] many people. It’s a family ranch and sand and mountains—a very beautiful place, but very isolated.
You’re about to play in New York. Have you ever played here before? What do you think of New York?
We love New York! You know, Tel Aviv is—they say it’s a city that doesn’t sleep. It’s very vibrant and happy, and you have places open up until very late in the morning and a very beautiful culture for young people. I think the first time that we played in New York, we were shocked. It’s even bigger than Tel Aviv, and it was a dream come true to play there. So we love New York and we are very excited to be back.
Can you tell us a little about your songwriting process?
Our debut album was inspired by the folk music of Jewish Yemenite women. They passed it down from one generation to the other, but [with] the second album, we [went] a step further. We created the entire album by ourselves. We wrote the lyrics, the concept, and composed it and arranged it with producer Tamir Muscat. It was such a great experience for us.
The album title is BAYTI FI RASI, which means, “My home is in my head,” and it’s a statement that our great grandmother—in English you can call her Rachel—it’s something that she used to say, because she was traveling from one place to another in Yemen and people always asked her, “Why don’t you stay in one place? Why can’t you find your home?” She [would say], “My home is in my head,” and we figured that this is how she felt as a refugee. She was Jewish in a Muslim country, [and] being a woman [made] her a second-class citizen. Women were treated very badly. They couldn’t read or write; they couldn’t decide [whom] to marry. It was really terrible. So she was always wandering and trying to change her luck, to get to a better place and to find a place she could call home. This journey of hers finally brought her to Israel.