Digging them roots

The Yemenite sounds of A-Wa prepare to go global with the release of their debut album.

A-Wa (photo credit: TOMER YOSEF)
(photo credit: TOMER YOSEF)
Tair Haim is a busy woman. The 32-year-old singer just managed to squeeze in an interview with me, betwixt a quick promo for a radio station and a Skype interview with a reporter in Canada. These are busy times for Haim and younger sisters Liron (30) and Tagel (26), who front A-Wa (pronounced “Ay-wa,” meaning “yes” in Arabic), as they prepare to officially launch their debut CD, Habib Galbi, with a gig at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv which will take place on September 15 (doors open 8:30 p.m.).
Despite being quite a way off from senior citizen status the Haim siblings, who hail from the diminutive Arava desert community of Shacharut, have been in the singing business for quite some time.
“We already called ourselves vocalists when we were very small,” notes Tair. “I had my first show when I was seven. It was my birthday. I arranged a few blocks together, got on the ‘stage,’ and a friend acted as MC and announced to the audience ‘ladies and gentlemen, the singer Tair Haim.’” Haim looks back at that infant “gig” as the marker for what her and her two sisters are up to these days.
“Think about it. Back then there was no reality TV, living in our small community we didn’t know anyone famous and music was such an important part of our lives, and we really related to ourselves as singers.”
That may have been an infant pipe dream, but the siblings gradually attained the nuts and bolts that would eventually turn the fantasy into a very tangible and audible reality.
“At school we did voice training and we had music classes, and learned the piano,” Tair recalls. “We also studied theater and dance.” All of the above quickly became second nature. “All we wanted to do was to sing and to perform. I think the music is something that chose us, not the other way round.”
The Haim sisters, like their other three siblings, grew up with the music of Yemen, and stuck to their traditional musical guns throughout. 60-year-old world renowned violinist and oud player Yair Dallal’s parents hailed from Iraq but, when he started out, Dallal rebelled against his musical genes and preferred to play rock and blues guitar. It was only when he was in his thirties, around the time of the so-called world music revolution, that he returned to his musical roots.
That was not the case with the Haims, regional cultural influences notwithstanding.
“We are impacted by lots of different kinds of music,” says the senior sibling. “We grew up next to Americans – volunteers on nearby kibbutzim like Ketura, Lotan and Grofit. We heard a lot of jazz and musicals. That’s where we learned the business of vocal harmony.”
The latter element is, in fact, extraneous to Yemenite music, and to Arabic music in general. It features prominently on Habib Galbi, in particular on the title track which has gone viral, with hundreds of thousands of viewings of the fun and stirring video clip.
“We listened to all the Motown [soul] music of the Seventies, and the Jacksons and that kind of thing,” Haim continues. “Our dad had lots of records from the Sixties and Seventies, prog rock and that kind of thing.”
But Yemenite music was a constant in the Haim environment.
“I remember of the henna [prenuptial] ceremony of my uncle, and there were weddings with Yemenite music too. But the henna ceremonies were most important because that’s how I was introduced to women’s singing.”
Yemenite female song is the backbone of Habib Galbi even though it has taken a confident stride or two into the here and now. But the Haim sisters are not the first Yemenite singers to mix tradition with contemporary commercial beats and textures. Late diva Ofra Haza achieved international success 30 years ago when her Yemenite Songs record and, in particular, a track called “Im Nin’alu,” which fused traditional material with electronica and hip-hop, made Haza a household name across Europe and Japan. The Haims have already got some international performing experience under their belts, and have toured Europe on the back of the incredible success of the title song which they released as a single back in April.
“We played at a festival in Poland, at an outdoor venue, and there were 20,000 people there,” says Tair.
The Shacharut resident says she and her sisters were far from overawed. “There was such a great energy about it. We loved it.”
“Basically, what we perform is women’s song with a contemporary twist,” says Tair. “I always knew I was going to record an album in Yemenite, but I didn’t know that I’d do that together with my sisters. I didn’t know how it would become a reality. This music has always drawn us, because of its groove and the melodies.
We were so fascinated by the idea of performing music that comes from a community that has been around for thousands of years, and to bring it into the here and now. We also want to keep the music alive.”
Specifically, the Haims wanted to feed off their musical legacy as women.
“There was a clear division in Yemen, between women’s song and men’s song,” Haim explains. “Men sang liturgical music, including piyut, and the women sang about different things. They sang about longing, about love and pain, and about injustice and political themes.”
“Ya Rait Man Ybsorak,” which appears on the debut CD, for example, opens with the stirring lines: “Why, my dear, did you decide to travel? I tried to calm my heart, but it is not calmed. Without liquor, the said the world is intoxicated. I want to know the door to your house, and your home.”
The sisters’ rhythmic close harmony on the song is punctuated by the staccato industrial-like drumming and percussion of Tamir Muskat and Tomer Yosef, with Tom Darom and Itamar Ziegler adding keyboards and bass guitar underpinning respectively. Yosef also produced the album and arranged the numbers.
The Barby show will also feature a guest appearance by globetrotting high octane gypsy-funk group Balkan Beat Box, which includes Muskat and Yosef, as well as saxophonist Ori Kaplan. For now there are three more shows lined up over the next few weeks – at Wunderbar in Haifa on September 24, Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv on September 29 and Liberty Bell Garden in Jerusalem on October 1.
One thing is for sure, there won’t be an unshaken leg in the house on September 15.
For tickets and more information: (03) 518-8123, www.barby.co.il and www.a-wamusic.com.