Tradition and modernity intermingle in the vocal and instrumental arrangements of Israeli break-out group A-Wa, with its spicy, feisty tribal sounds taking the music world by storm. Founded by three sisters — Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim — who grew up in Shaharut, a tiny village in southern Israel — they are captivating international audiences with their hypnotic harmonies of ancient Yemenite songs they learned from their grandparents
“The songs were daring and sassy and they were passed down from one woman to another,” says Tair Haim, 34, the eldest sister.
The Haim sisters make their regional debut on June 15 at the Hamilton in Northwest Washington with songs and stories from their first album, 2015’s “Habib Galbi” or “Love of My Heart,” as well as some anticipated new original pieces.
Not incidentally, due to the border-erasing power of the Internet, these three Israeli women singing in Arabic dialect have also gained followers in Egypt, Morocco and, apparently, Dubai, where the taxi drivers have a thing for A-Wa, Haim reports.
The sisters grew up immersed in music and nature. “It was like ‘Little House on the Prairie,’” says Haim. Her mother milked goats and made cheese; the family grew greens, had chickens and horses, and the girls ran free outdoors, barefoot and unbridled. They also developed their voices.
“Our grandparents used to live in Hadera, which is the center of Israel,” Haim says. “Each holiday we used to go and hear our grandpa praying with a beautiful Yemenite voice and little trills. Our grandma sang, of course, while working in the house, making food in the kitchen.” They brought their prayers, their songs and their music with them when they immigrated during Operation Magic Carpet in 1950, which brought nearly 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel.
As girls, the Haim sisters listened closely to their grandparents’ stories and asked about life in Yemen.
Their grandmother’s background “just made us feel so special and curious about the tradition,” Haim says. “She told us many beautiful and interesting stories. We learned about the singing of the Jewish women in Yemen.”
Yemenite Jewish women – and Yemenite Jews in general – have a long tradition of vocal music. In fact, Israel has a legacy of Yemenite women singers, from Shoshana Damari in the 1940s and ‘50s to Ofra Haza in the 1980s and ‘90s to today’s Achinoam Nini (Noa).
The women in Yemen couldn’t read or write and didn’t take part in synagogue services, Haim explains. “Their home life was separate from the men and they created their own folklore and their own songs. It was their outlet. Anything they couldn’t tell men they used to just say in the songs.”
As much as they were inspired by their Yemenite roots, the sisters also absorbed their parents’ music — progressive rock, jazz, blues, the psychedelic sounds of the 1960s. Haim says their father wanted to study music as a youngster, but the family wasn’t able to afford lessons.
“At a very young age, I knew I wanted to be a singer and I told myself I’m going to be an international singer,” Haim says. “Growing up in a small village, I felt there was something outside this place.”
After college, the sisters began writing their own songs and playing together, but it wasn’t work: “It was like our childhood when we used to perform together as little girls at school and events.”
They discovered that the Yemenite sound was exciting and enticing, especially when combined with the hip hop they heard as teenagers. “We created a mix that we never heard before and made it our own,” Haim says.
They sent a demo to Tomer Yosef, of the Israeli-European fusion band Balkan Beat Box. He was hooked and produced their first and biggest hit so far.
That title track, with its mesmerizing video shot in desert landscapes, the trio clad in bright fuchsia djellaba dresses decorated with shiny coins jangling from their belts, became an international sensation as much for its out-of-the-ordinary visuals as for the enchanting singing and driving Yemeni rhythms played on the darbuka drum and the more brittle sounding Yemenite tin.
So what does a-wa mean? Most simply in Arabic it translates to “yes.” But Haim points out that a-wa, pronounced AY-wah, is used as a celebratory yes, a go-for-it, an all-in call.
A-Wa, she says, is a cheer that exhorts, “Let’s celebrate life and enjoy together. Let’s forget about differences and boundaries. It’s positive and catchy. It’s a call for everyone to join us in this journey and just have fun.”
A-Wa, June 15 at The Hamilton, 600 14th St. NW, Washington; doors open at 6:30 p.m., show begins at 7:30 p.m.; tickets $20-$25; 202-787-1000 or live.thehamiltondc.com.