a wa

 

When A-Wa’s music video for “Habib Galbi” first debuted on YouTube last year—a clip that includes hip-hop dancers in track suits, neon pink headscarves, and a Jeep Wrangler joy ride through the desert—the world collectively wondered: Who are these three women in high top sneakers and djellabas, and where have they been all of our lives?

Since then, we’ve learned the fashionable Middle Eastern singers are literally the Yemenite-Israeli Haim sisters. (Same last name, but no relation to Taylor Swift’s BFFs.) Together, Tair, 33, Liron, 31, and Tagel, 27, form the band known as A-Wa, which means “yes” in Arabic, whose music combines Yemeni folk songs with electronic sounds and hip-hop influences.

This mash-up of seemingly disparate musical genres is mostly the result of the Haim sisters’ upbringing in a small desert village near Egypt, where many Jewish-American immigrants were also settled at the time. At home, the sisters were exposed to their parents’ old record collection and spoke with their grandparents in a Yemeni Arabic dialect; at school, their American music teacher taught them all about Motown and jazz.

After all three of them had finished college, they reunited and began writing and uploading songs to YouTube. They later teamed up with producer Tomer Yosef, the lead singer of Balkan Beat Box, to make their debut album, Habib Galbi, and that unforgettable video, which has racked up more than four million views.

A-Wa has managed to attract a large and diverse fan base. “We’ve had people from India come to our show, people from Yemen,” explains Tair Haim, the eldest of the sisters, by phone from Tel Aviv. “We see people from Arab countries, but also from Europe and the States. Hipsters from everywhere!”

 

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Photographed by Mayan Toledano

It’s easy to see the universality of their appeal. While most of their band’s sound is rooted in tradition (they sing in their grandparents’ Yemeni Arabic dialect), there’s something about their music that feels modern, refreshing, unlike anything you’ve heard before. Their striking beauty and unique fashion sense doesn’t hurt either.

“Even if they don’t understand the lyrics, they get a sense of our music,” says Tair. “We tell stories and use hand gestures, just like our grandma used to sing to her girlfriends.” According to Tair, her grandmothers’ generation of women wasn’t taught to read or write—activities reserved solely for the men of the household. “The women would take care of the house and children, and would sing to themselves to express their emotions in these songs,” she explains. “They were brave and daring. Everything they couldn’t tell the men, they would put in these songs. That’s what we do, but we gave it our own twist.”

One afternoon this summer, the photographer Mayan Toledano filmed the trio as they gave us a tour of the old Jaffa neighborhood of Tel Aviv. “We always dreamt of going to the big city to make music,” explains Tair. “There’s a large music scene here. It’s a very artistic city.” The sisters showed off some of their favorite old haunts, such as an artisan jewelry shop run by goldsmith Ben-Zion David, who’s become one of the band’s most loyal fans. “He’s a great artist. He makes beautiful pieces,” Tair says. “His shop is a beautiful place where we can go and have Yemenite coffee and make all this beautiful jewelry. We even did a fashion shoot with him. He comes to a lot of our shows.”

Other stops on the tour included the Levinsky Market and its Saluf and Sons, a traditional Yemeni restaurant; and a vinyl store, where the sisters have spent hours scavenging for rare records in the past. “When we started working on this album, we collected a lot of old records of Yemenite singers that immigrated, like our grandparents did, to Israel,” explains Tair. “We also love to listen to old tapes from Africa to discover new grooves and new beats. Wherever we go to in the world, we go to the record store.” And while A-Wa has currently been listening to a lot of Drake, Rihanna, and Kendrick Lamar, the last albums they picked up are more unexpected: Tame Impala’s Currents—“we love their psychedelic sound”—and an old Barbra Streisand record.

A-Wa will tour the U.S. from September 15 through September 25.

 

Fashion Editor: Haya Vider, Hair: Ronelle Goshen, Makeup: Netta Szekely

Special Thanks:
Ben Zion David – Jewish Yemenite Culture and Art Museum and Hotel Montefiore 

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