A-WA: Building Musical Bridges
By: Nick Lieber, Editorial Associate and Analyst, Creative Community For Peace
If you haven’t yet heard of the Israeli band A-WA (pronounced “EY-wah”), you will. The musical trio, comprised of sisters Tair, Liron, and Tagel Haim, made a splash last year with the release of their video “Habib Galbi,” which blended hip-hop and reggae with traditional Yemenite music.
They have become a hit in Israel — “Habib Galbi” was the first song in Arabic to make it to number one on the Israeli pop charts — and around the world. They have also — perhaps surprisingly for an Israeli group — attracted a substantial fan base throughout the Arab world, particularly in Yemen.
“We met a Yemeni Muslim guy in New York,” Tagel, the youngest of the three sisters, told Creative Community For Peace (CCFP). “After the concert he said that the first few minutes of the concert he couldn’t move, he was hypnotized. He felt that we took him back to his neighborhood and memories in Yemen.”
Seventy years ago, the Yemenite — meaning Yemeni Jewish — population in Yemen was over 50,000. From 1949-1950, most of them — including the paternal grandparents of the Haim sisters — were brought to Israel to escape the increasingly dangerous climate for their community. They and their descendants now number approximately 350,000.
Today, there are no diplomatic relations between Israel and Yemen, and Israeli citizens are banned from the country. Consequently, most Yemenite Jews find themselves cut off from Yemen and Yemeni Muslims, a situation which the Haim sisters believe to be a source of regret and nostalgia in Yemeni communities in Yemen and abroad.
However, through their music, infused with Yemenite folklore and beats, A-WA and other Yemenite Israeli musicians have managed — on a cultural level — to stay connected with the land their ancestors lived on for millennia. They have also — during their performances in Europe and the US, as well as through social media — managed to rekindle the relationship between Yemenite Jews and Yemeni Muslims.
“There was a Yemeni Muslim family that immigrated from Yemen to Paris three years ago and they come to our shows with their little boy and girl dressed up in traditional Yemeni clothes,” Tair, the eldest, told us. “They just love our music and say how much comfort and love they get from it, and that they’re very proud of what we’re doing.”
“For people from Yemen, they’re proud of the community, and the Jewish people who came from Yemen,” Liron, the middle sister, explained.
“They say they’re missing their Jewish brothers,” Tagel added.
“Sometimes people, mostly students from Yemen, come to our shows or write us on Facebook saying ‘Thank you for making us feel strong in these hard times,’” Tair said. “And in Berlin we were the guests of honor at an event called Yemenite Saloon. They took questions from fans from Yemen, and it was really nice.”
We couldn’t help but wonder if their Israeli identity makes it difficult to connect with their fans in the Arab world. In some countries of the Middle East, it’s a crime to interact with Israelis, even to befriend them on Facebook. In others, pressure from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign to refrain from “normalizing” relations with Israelis deters people from extending a hand.
“Sometimes they just don’t know what to do with us,” Tair said. “I always say we confuse them in a good way. We celebrate everything that we are. We’re women and Yemenite, and Israeli and Jewish. We’re musicians. And it’s okay to be many things. This is one of our messages to the world. you can be many things and have many identities, and you can feel free to express each one of these.”
“Sometimes they say we know you’re from Israel but we don’t care, it’s just such beautiful music,” Tagel said.
“There was a man [at the Yemenite Saloon] who said ‘Hi I’m from India and I want you to know that we listen to you and we love you there,’” Liron added. “And then a guy from Dubai said ‘Yeah our taxi drivers listen to you.’ And there was a Palestinian guy there.”
“It was beautiful, just beautiful,” Tair said.
“As little girls, we found ourselves very open and identifying with other cultures. I loved Arabic and Greek music from a very young age, so now when I meet somebody from Greece or Morocco I find myself saying ‘OH! Do you know this singer?’” Liron said. “And it’s all connected to us — and we don’t think of politics. We don’t see people as countries, as flags — just as humans, as souls. It might be naive to look at things like this, but it’s a much better and accepting way to communicate with people.”
For the most part in their encounters with their fans around the world, the sisters let their music do the talking, not purposefully emphasizing the fact that they’re Israeli. But sometimes, they find themselves becoming unwitting ambassadors for Israel, correcting the misconceptions people have about the country of their birth.
“One woman in France asked us where we’re from so I told her from Israel, from Tel Aviv,” Tagel said. “And she said ‘But you’re a woman — are you allowed to sing?’ I couldn’t believe that’s what she thought. And the way to show people that we aren’t necessarily what they thought is to come open-minded and to set an example.”
“Someone told us that we bring lots of love, that you can tell, both onstage and off stage that we have lots of love to give,” Tair added.
“And that was nice to hear because it’s exactly what we want to do,” Liron said. “To bring love, to unite people.”
At Creative Community For Peace (CCFP), we believe in the power of musicians to unite, to bring people together through their music, to expose them to new cultures and perspectives and allow them to connect on a deeper level, overcoming preconceived notions and biases. A-WA is the perfect example.
A-WA will soon be on tour in the United States, performing in Chicago, Minneapolis, New York City, and elsewhere throughout the second half of September. To see a full listing, please click here.