Israeli band finds inspiration in Yemen’s Jewish musical heritage

The sister trio, Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim, make up A-WA, fuse an eclectic blend of Yemeni folk songs with electro-pop and hip-hop beats. (Photo courtesy: Tomer Yousef)

While a devastating year-long conflict steals Yemen’s spotlight, three Israeli sisters with Yemeni-Jewish roots seek to turn attention back to brighter parts of their homeland: the country’s rich yet fading musical traditions.

The trio, Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim, make up A-WA (pronounced ‘Ay-wah,’ Arabic slang for ‘yes’). Together, they fuse an eclectic blend of Yemeni folk songs with electro-pop and hip-hop beats.

“We discovered such a beautiful tradition,” Tair told Al Arabiya English in a Skype interview.

The Haim sisters, whose grandparents came from Yemen - their grandfather from the capital Sanaa and their grandmother from the southern city of Ibb - sing in an Arabic dialect spoken by Yemeni Jews. They describe their parlance as “very beautiful, melodic and groovy.”

Raised in an Israeli village near the Egyptian border, Tair explained that singing in the Yemeni-Jewish style is a way to keep in touch with their roots and heritage - and to connect with their grandparents who left Yemen over six decades ago.

Women used music as their outlet for their emotions.

Tair Haim

In 1949, their grandparents were among the 50,000 Jews airlifted from Yemen’s Aden – which at the time was a British colony – to live in the newly-formed state of Israel. The mass airlift, organized by the fledgling Israeli government, is known as Operation Magic Carpet.

Yemen’s Jewish minority, generally referred to as Mizrahi Jews, have had a long history in Yemen that predates Islam. Yet today, only around 50 Jews are left in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula nation.

A-WA was formed five years ago, when the sisters - who are in their late twenties and early thirties - wanted to know more about their heritage and cultural traditions.

AWA Gaya's music photos

AWA Gaya's music photos

After discovering old records produced by Yemen’s Jewish minority, the sisters were enchanted. A shared love of contemporary hip-hop and reggae sparked an idea.

They decided to record several songs and upload them on video-sharing site Youtube. “People started giving us comments and saying it was beautiful,” said Tair.

The response online mirrored the real-life reaction. The sisters have so performed sold-out shows in Europe and the United States.

‘Emotional outlet’

According to Human Rights Watch, Yemeni women face severe discrimination in all aspects of life. Yet what intrigued the sisters about their Yemeni heritage was how its Jewish women in Yemen used music to express their emotions.

Yemen’s Jewish women would use oral poetry and song to document their lives, Tair said.

“Many songs have mysterious lyrics and a sense of humor but they are also very poetic - women used music as their outlet for their emotions,” she added.

Many of the old folk songs have a theatrical twist, with dancing and drumming on a tin drum or silver plate all parts of the act.

Lyrics tend to be fluid. The sisters say they have changed and added to the compositions, such as their version of Habib Galbi (Sweetheart) that they learned from their grandmother.

New musical world

“It’s important for us to give a traditional song our own twist, to refresh it,” Tair said. “In a way, we are actually continuing the tradition.”

Habib Galbi became the first Arabic-language song to make it to the top of the Israeli charts last year.

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To help produce their songs, the sisters recruited Tomer Yosef from the Gypsy punk band Balkan Beat Box, a fellow Israeli who also has Yemeni roots.

The musical style of the sisters is also reflected in their clothes. The trio are often seen wearing traditional Yemeni attire and jewelry combined with street and hip-hop styles.

“We care about creating a world that combines the old and the new - Middle Eastern vibe and hip-hop vibe,” said Tair.

Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim, Tal Givony

Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim, Tal Givony

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:51 - GMT 06:51
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