SXSW: Israeli sister act A-Wa finds new meaning in Yemeni folk songs

On Thursday March 16, sisters Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim of the Israeli group, A-WA, thrilled a capacity crowd at their Thursday night SXSW 2016 showcase at Flamingo Cantina. The band was in town as part of their first North American tour. (Reshma Kirpalani / American-Statesman)

On Thursday March 16, sisters Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim of the Israeli group, A-WA, thrilled a capacity crowd at their SXSW 2016 showcase at Flamingo Cantina. The band was in town as part of their first North American tour. (Reshma Kirpalani / American-Statesman)

With exuberant energy and tightly woven Yemenite harmonies laid over reggae-tinged electro grooves, A-Wa, a sister act from Israel thrilled a capacity crowd at Flamingo Cantina on Thursday night. The band, who dropped their debut EP, produced by Tomer Yosef of Balkan Beat Box, was in town as part of their first North American tour.

The sisters, Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim grew up in a musical family in Shaharut, a mountaintop village in the middle of the deserts of southern Israel. Their paternal grandparents emigrated to the country from Yemen in 1949, the year after Israel was established. In Shaharut, they began singing together as children. “We would sing to the people in our village, gather around all the kids and come up with shows,” Tair Haim said on Friday morning.

Soon they were singing in school talent shows and then went to university to study music. Over the past few years, the sisters, now ages 27-33, began to rediscover the Yemeni folk songs they sang as children. “It’s an oral tradition,” Tagel Haim said, “each woman passed it down to her daughter and this is how these songs got to us.”

The sisters feel the messages in the songs, which are mostly about love and loss are still relevant today. The lyrics from “Habib Galbi,” the lead single from the EP, roughly translate to “Love of my heart, my eyes, who turned you against me? I wish him to eat with no taste.”

“It’s like their sense of humor,” Liron Haim said. “It’s like a very gentle curse, ‘I want you to eat, but not enjoy it.’” Though the subject matter is sad, the song is still very upbeat and danceable. The same is true of most of A-Wa’s work and they love the way their music bridges cultural barriers.

“There’s also a message that we can overcome and any problem by just singing and enjoying together, dancing freely and carelessly,” Liron said. “We love the comments that we get from people that they don’t really understand the lyrics, but they feel something. It moves them and that’s a great thing.”

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