»Our Parents had no Idea how big our Dreams were« – An Interview with A-Wa

Foto: Hassan Hajjaj
Photo: Hassan Hajjaj

The sisters Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim aka A-Wa have landed Israel’s first-ever No. 1 hit in Arabic language and now they not only grace Pop-Kultur with their presence but with new material. A conversation about an unusual tradition of the remix. By Thomas Vorreyer

»Music was like a game to us. Throught it we could create a world that was our own and didn’t really exist around us.« Liron Haim recollects her childhood in Shaharut. Only a single road leads up to the village lying above the Arava Valley. In the Mid 80s, Haim’s parents, nature-loving pioneers from the big cities, had co-founded the settlement in Israel’s sparse south. But their daughters should soon return to the rest of the world. »Our parents had no idea how big our dreams were.«, says Tagel Haim, Liron’s younger sister.

Together with their third and oldest sister, Tair, they form a band. It’s called A-Wa and »Habib Galbi« is their biggest hit so far. Four million clicks on YouTube, enthusiastic comments from all over the Arabic World, #1 in the Israeli single charts – thanks to a mix of traditional and contemporary music and also thanks to the Arabic lyrics. Thus far, no one had been able to do so. But the story behind this hit is as much about the segregation of peoples as it does of the segregation of the sexes.

And the tradition lives in grandma’s living room. The Haims descend from Yemenites. Yemen had been home to a large Jewish community for centuries. But even before Israel’s independence in 1948, it suffers under pogroms. The situation deteriorates during the Arab-Israeli War and almost 50,000 Jews are evacuated mostly via airplane until 1950. »Our grandmother came to Israel when she was 13 years old.«, Liron accounts. »She married our grandfather on the way. She didn’t speak Hebrew, as only men were allowed to do so in Yemen.« Grandma Haim tried to integrate as quickly as possible and hid her Arabic-Yemeni culture for years. To her grandchildren, she spoke Hebrew. But she also sang them songs from her childhood. Fortunately.

It’s common among Yemenite women to sing while doing the housework. Due to strict religious rules in Yemen, they spent most of their day separated from their husbands but in the company of other women. »Jewish women had a greater connection to Arab women than to their partners.«, Liron sums up. While the women took care of the household and the children, they sang Arabic songs and thus escaped their daily life, says Liron: »For the women, singing was the only possibility to express their feelings.« In »Habib Galbi« A-Wa sing: »Love of my heart, my eyes/ It is a riddle to me, who pitted you against me.« But the singing was often a mirror of their hopes as well. In the successful music video for the single, A-Wa try to fulfill these dreams.

The trio plays three women in the desert, doing the housework under the reign of a patriarch. Until they escape in a Jeep, wearing bright pink Galabias, the traditional dresses of the region. »The women we play in our video are not given their freedom. They just take it for themselves.«, Liron puts it.

»Pink is the greatest possible contrast to the desert and is the most feminine color we could imagine, a color of freedom and optimism.»

In pink, A-Wa create a new world.

One of the reasons A-Wa became known with songs like »Habib Galbi« is Tomer Yosef from the band Balkan Beat Box. The producer is Yemenite as well and discovered the sisters on YouTube where they had uploaded singing videos. In English, in Hebrew, and in Arabic. »Tomer said: You know, you sound great in English and Hebrew, but there always is this Yemenite echo,« Liron remembers. »Why don’t you go through with that?«

A-Wa combine the old with the new

Said and done. Together, they record 12 Yemenite and Arabic classics for the first album. The three-voiced folklore is highlighted by a band sound and a beat. The latter is oriented towards Hip Hop and Reggae, those sounds brought to the Haims by 90’s MTV. It’s a great fit. Maybe because Yemenite traditional songs are a predecessor of today’s remix culture – orally passed on and versatile, as Tagel says: »Every woman can and could add lines or remove them, that’s why there are a lot of different variants of single songs.« The Haims are confidently continuing this tradition.

In tense times, such as ours, A-Wa manages to equally appeal to Jewish Israelis and Arabs. At their first Berlin concert in the Lido in 2015, Israelis, Lebanese, Syrians sang along, Americans and Germans wildly danced with them. And in Germany, a Yemenite singer was once at the top of the charts. In 1988, the world star Ofra Haza climbed them with her song »Im Nin’alu«, which is based on an old Hebrew poem, though. »Haza opened a lot of doors.«, Tagel finds. »She made Yemenite music popular long before YouTube.« While Haza’s hit was still filed under »World Music«, today’s generation can at best laugh about such clichés.

Their debut album, long published in Israel, has only been released in Central Europe this summer. Meanwhile, A-Wa have worked on new songs, this time, self-written ones. They thereby use Arabic, English and Hebrew language and at Pop-Kultur, A-Wa will play their new songs for the first-ever time in Germany. »To connect the old to something new and authentic, that is an Israeli tradition.«, says Liron.

Their grandmother will surely be happy about it. Since their grandchildren have become successful, she suddenly speaks a lot of Arabic and remembers the times in Yemen. Her old world seems to have returned to her.

A-Wa are performing live at Pop-Kultur on September 1 at the Heimathafen Neukölln. Tickets and additional information can be found right here.