The Sisters Of A-WA 'Want To Bring Something New' To Yemen's Musical Traditions

Sep 3, 2019
Originally published on September 9, 2019 11:56 am

A-WA is made up of three Israeli sisters, Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim. This melodic trio of Jewish women of Yemeni descent women emphasize mixing their culture's traditions with forward-thinking modifications to sound, visuals and ethos. The sisters are known for eye-popping music videos that challenge gender stereotypes. Picture women in traditional robes that are neon pink while off-roading across a barren desert. The trio's sound is just as distinctive. The sisters' latest album, Bayti Fi Rasi (My Home Is In My Head), is inspired by traditional music from their ancestors' home country of Yemen with modern hip-hop and electronic elements.

While A-WA was at NPR's headquarters in Washington D.C. to perform a Tiny Desk concert, the members spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about the messaging of the band's music.

"The songs on this album are inspired by our great grandma," Tair, the eldest sister, says. "She was traveling from Yemen to Israel as a single mom and ["Hana Mash Hu Al Yaman"] talks about her arrival in Israel. They put all the Yemenite Jews back then in transition camps or a tent camp. ... We talk about all the mixed emotions she felt."

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With Bayti Fi Rasi being sung from the point of view of the sisters' great grandmother, Rachel, in 1949, Tair explains that this music upholds her legacy.

"She was a feminist before she even knew what a feminist is," Tair says. "She was so strong. Her journey was so courageous and she didn't have any help from anyone. But thanks to her, we are a generation born in Israel and our future and our present are better. We have a better life."

The ladies take what they have inherited from older generations — the harmonies, melodies and Yemenite traditions — and deliberately yank them into the 21st century by adding beats and production effects that their great grandmother would never have heard of.

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"For us, it's not interesting to put the tradition as it is because we want to bring something new. We want to bring ourselves," Tair says. "We also have three voices as young women, so in the album, for instance, we sort of blended her voice — things that she couldn't say back then — with our voices."

With the current global refugee crisis, the Haim sisters hope that the story of their great grandmother will speak to people, especially women, who find themselves in these similar situations today.

"We felt that this issue is so relevant," Tair says.

"It's a story about one woman, but it's actually a story of so many other refugees around the world. So, for us, it's a story that we wanted to tell for years," Liron adds.

Audio editor Emily Kopp and web editor Sidney Madden contributed to this story.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Three Israeli sisters make up the band A-WA.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MALHUGA")

A-WA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: They're Jews of Yemeni descent who have become known for eye-popping music videos that challenge gender stereotypes. Picture women in traditional robes - which happen to be neon pink - off-roading across a barren desert. Their sound is just as distinctive. The sisters' last album reworked traditional music from their ancestors' home country of Yemen. To give you a sense of how these songs used to sound, here's a recording from the 1960s of a tune called "Habib Galbi."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HABIB GALBI")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: A-WA's version of the tune has tight harmonies and electronic beats.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HABIB GALBI")

A-WA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: This "Habib Galbi" became their first big hit four years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HABIB GALBI")

A-WA: (Singing in foreign language).

TAIR HAIM: I am Tair. I'm the oldest.

LIRON HAIM: And I'm Liron. I'm in the middle of the sandwich.

TAGEL HAIM: And I'm Tagel.

SHAPIRO: Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim recently came here to NPR headquarters to play a Tiny Desk Concert. That's where a band plays a few songs in our offices for an online video. They performed tracks from their new album "Bayti Fi Rasi," which is mostly original material. I sat down with A-WA right after their set. Tair, the eldest sister, did most of the talking.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: I never get to be behind the tiny desk. I'm always on that side. It's really exciting.

TAIR HAIM: Exciting, right?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I want to ask about the song "Hana Mash," which you performed. It imagines a conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

A-WA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Tell us who these two people are talking to each other and what they're talking about.

TAIR HAIM: The song, like the rest of the song on this album, are inspired by our great-grandma. She was traveling from Yemen to Israel as a single mom, and this specific song talks about her arrival in Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

A-WA: (Singing in foreign language).

TAIR HAIM: They put all the Yemenite Jews back then in transition camp or tent camp. I don't know how to call it.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

TAIR HAIM: It's called in Hebrew maghaba (ph). And we talk about all the mixed emotions she felt.

SHAPIRO: This song is funny and also a little bit tragic. One voice says...

TAIR HAIM: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...I'll build a house. And the other voice says, you'll have a tent. I'll get a job. You'll pick up trash.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

A-WA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: This is sort of the dream and the reality.

TAIR HAIM: True. Yeah. It's like two voices in her head or maybe she's saying something and the people in the camp, like, answering her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

A-WA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: The entire album is about your great-grandmother's experience coming from Yemen to Israel in 1949. What do you want people to know about this story? Why was this a story that you wanted to explore through these songs?

TAIR HAIM: She was a feminist, you know, before she even knew what a feminist is. And she was so strong. Her journey was so courageous, and she didn't have any help from anyone. But thanks to her, we are generation born in Israel. And our future and our present are better. We have a better life, thanks to her.

SHAPIRO: What was her name?

TAIR HAIM: Rachel.

SHAPIRO: And did you know her?

TAIR HAIM: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: Was she alive when you were born?

TAIR HAIM: No, no. She passed away before we even born.

SHAPIRO: My understanding is that in Yemen, traditionally, music is passed down generationally through women. Is that right?

TAIR HAIM: Yeah. The Jewish music in Yemen was divided. Like, the men sang a lot of religious songs, like the Torah. And women couldn't read it or write, so they had to invent their own songs - all secular - and they passed it down from one woman to another, from generation to generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

A-WA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: So you're taking what you have inherited from older generations...

TAIR HAIM: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Harmonies and melodies and Yemenite traditions - and you are yanking them into the 21st century and blowing them up and adding beats and production effects that your great-grandmother would never have heard of.

TAIR HAIM: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: What appeals to you about doing something wildly new and different with the tradition you've been given?

TAIR HAIM: For us, it's not interesting to put the tradition as it is because we want to bring something new. We want to bring ourselves. And we also have three voices as young women. So in the album, for instance, we sort of blended her voice - things that she couldn't say back then - with our voices.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example of something on the album that you think your great-grandmother would have said if she could but you are saying it instead in 2019?

TAIR HAIM: I can tell you something that she used to say. She said (foreign language spoken). And it means, I'm a woman, and I'm a man. And she meant that she can do any work, and she's equal. I mean, she can do whatever she wants to.

SHAPIRO: Does that appear on the album somewhere?

TAIR HAIM: On the song "Bayti Fi Rasi," which is the title track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAYTI FI RASI")

A-WA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Which means, my home is in my head.

TAIR HAIM: My home is in my head - another statement that she used to say - very strong and powerful.

SHAPIRO: This album speaks to the experience of a woman fleeing a Middle Eastern country as a refugee in 1949.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

A-WA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: And now there is another global refugee crisis with women and their families fleeing, whether it's from Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan. Do you think that this music speaks to the people who find themselves in a place today similar to where your great-grandmother found herself in 1949?

TAIR HAIM: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, we felt that this issue is so relevant. That's why we wanted to take this story to put it out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

A-WA: (Singing in foreign language).

L HAIM: Can I say something?

TAIR HAIM: Yeah, yeah.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, please.

TAIR HAIM: This is Liron, by the way.

L HAIM: Yeah. It's a story about, like, one woman, but it's actually a story of so many other refugees around the world. So for us, it's a story that we wanted to tell for years.

SHAPIRO: Thank you so much for talking with us.

L HAIM: Thank you.

TAIR HAIM: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Tair Haim, along with Liron and Tagel - the three sisters make up the band A-WA. And their new album is called "Bayti Fi Rasi," which means, my home is in my head.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

A-WA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: The music we're listening to was recorded at A-WA's Tiny Desk Concert, and that video is up at npr.org. Tomorrow, we'll have a conversation about the humanitarian crisis and civil war that are happening in Yemen right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

A-WA: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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