Being Mizrahi is cool, say hot band A-Wa

A Yemenite-Israeli band, made up  of three sisters,  has been taking the Middle Eastern music world by storm. The Forward ‘bigs it up’ for A-WA:

The Haim sisters sing in what they call “Yemenite,” a nearly extinct
dialect of Arabic spoken by the Jews of Yemen. “Our dad, who’s the
Yemenite one, was not sure at the beginning how people would embrace
this kind of music,” said Tair. “He said ‘Ah, I love Greek music, make
something Greek,’ but we said, ‘No, this is what we feel in our souls.’”
The Haim sisters say singing in Yemenite is a way to understand their
heritage and connect with their grandparents. From 1949 to 1950,
Operation Magic Carpet brought 50,000 Jews from Yemen to the newly
established state of Israel.

Yemenite songs like “Habib Galbi” were passed down through
generations, but only as recently as the 1950s and ’60s were they
recorded in Israel. The Haim sisters wanted to rejuvenate these songs,
but needed a producer. They sent a demo of “Habib Galbi” to Tomer Yosef,
the lead singer in the electronic Gypsy punk band Balkan Beat Box. The
sisters felt a kinship with Yosef because he also comes from a Yemenite
background. Yosef gave the demo to “his tribe” of elder Yemenite women.
They loved it and even mistook the sisters as being from Yemen.

Like their father, the sisters were initially unsure about how the
public would react to them singing in Arabic. They say they were nervous
but optimistic. “You have to go with your guts and stay connected to
where you come from,” said Tair, who learned to sing jazz at the Rimon
School of Music, where she earned her degree. Now their hit single
“Habib Galbi” has been viewed on YouTube over 720,000 times, and they
have played concerts all over Israel and Europe.

Appealing to Arab and Israeli Ears: The members of A-WA donned pink hijabs for a music video in which they perform a dance called the ‘Yemenite Step.’

Appealing to Arab and Israeli Ears:
The members of A-WA donned pink hijabs for a music video in which they perform a dance called the ‘Yemenite Step.’(Photo:A-wa)

In the past, however, Arabic — the language of Israel’s Mizrahi
Jewish immigrants — has often carried a stigma since it was the language
spoken by Israel’s adversaries. Former President David Ben-Gurion’s
“melting pot” policy of creating an Israeli identity meant shedding and
suppressing Diasporic languages like Ladino, Yiddish and distinctly
Jewish dialects of Arabic. So while Ashkenazim have made up the majority
of the Israeli government, Mizrahim have historically been among the
poorest and most disenfranchised of Israel’s population.

is part of a movement that celebrates Jewish-Israeli cultural roots in
Arabic. Now, after decades of discrimination, the younger generation of
Mizrahim is rediscovering their Jewish ethnic identity as Middle
Easterners and reclaiming their heritage. Being Mizrahi is cool, the
Haim sisters say.

A-WA and Tomer Yosef aren’t the only musicians to revive Yemenite Jewish identity. The sisters point to a
1960s recording of “Habib Galbi” by Shlomo Moga’a
, who immigrated to Israel from Yemen after World War II. In the 1980s,
Israeli pop singer, Ofra Haza, also sang in Yemenite. Known as the
“Madonna of the East,” she helped bridge the divide between Jews and
Arabs. Achinoam Nini, Yemen Blues, and other mainstream Israeli bands,
as well, merge Yemenite tunes with melodies from Israel, the West, and
other places around the world.

In their appeal to “Arab ears,” Gaar Adams points out in an article in
Foreign Policy
that “A-WA is seeking fans in a market where even the slightest hint of
Israeli involvement in a commercial project could incite boycotts.” But
the sisters have fans everywhere, including Muslim countries. “Lots of
Yemenite people feel proud that we preserve the culture. Not only in
Israel, but also in Yemen, both Jews and non-Jews,” said Tair. The
Facebook group “Mipsterz—Muslim Hipsters,” which has over 12,000
followers, featured the “Habib Galbi” music video a few days after its

“It’s amazing that people know that we’re from Israel, and still,
they like the music, and they feel connected and they enjoy it,” said
Tair. “We feel like our music is sort of a bridge to connect people from
Arab countries and from Israel and from all over the world. They relate
to the music, the groove, and the story of liberation.”

A-Wa: cultural bridge

“Habib Galbi” is a song about freeing yourself from the chains of a
bad relationship, the Haim sisters say. With lyrics such as, roughly
translated, “My love, my eyes, who turned you against me? who will hear
me cry?” the sisters have transformed a sad story into an upbeat hit. “I
think that the music video is completing another angle of the story
that you don’t find in the text,” said Tair. “We do something with that,
we free ourselves, we take this Jeep and we drive away into the
desert.” Featuring 12 songs, including “Habib Galbi,” inspired by
Yemenite folk music and poetry, their first album debuts this summer.

“[A-WA] is sort of a calling… It’s like yalla, let’s celebrate, let’s
have fun. It cheers you up,” the sisters explained, finishing each
other’s sentences. “I really love that people would come to us after a
concert,” said Tair, “and say, ‘I didn’t understand a word but I don’t
care because the music was so moving and it somehow touched me and I
couldn’t stop dancing.’”

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