Israeli sister trio remixes Yemenite folk with hip-hop

With hazy desert scenery and color-popping costumes in the video of their album’s title track, “Habib Galbi,” a trio of Israeli sisters sings in Yemenite Arabic punctuated by an electronic beat.

Named one of the top 10 global music picks by NPR, the sisters, who have been filling halls from Belgium to Budapest, are now off to North America. They call themselves A-Wa, Arabic for “yes,” which is their message.

“We felt like we’re making music that can speak to people no matter where they come from,” said Tair Haim, the oldest of the sisters, during a recent Skype interview from her apartment in Tel Aviv. “It’s a very international thing to tell stories by going back to family roots and combining that with electronic beats.”

Israeli sisters Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim form the Yemenite folk-fusion band A-Wa. photo/tomer yosef

That “international thing,” which included stops in Western and Eastern Europe, is taking the sisters on their first American tour, which includes a stop at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Tuesday, March 15.

“Habib Galbi,” their album already released in Israel, has just been updated for international release, with a new cover by Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj, known as the “Andy Warhol of Marrakech.”

The original “Habib Galbi” was a traditional Yemenite folk song that the three sisters knew from childhood. Tair, Liron and Tagel, the three eldest of six children, grew up in the southern Israeli desert village of Shaharut, listening to traditional Yemenite folk coupled with 1960s and  ’70s rock, including Michael Jackson. Like Jackson, the sisters enjoy dressing up. Their concert attire is a mix of traditional Yemenite fashion and hip-hop street wear. On the video and on their website (, they drive a jeep through the desert in hot pink hijabs designed by Tair.

The sisters, who identify as Mizrahi Jews, have Yemenite, Moroccan and Ukrainian heritage. They did not grow up in a traditionally religious household.

“We do believe in this power, you can call it God. We’re very open, we love music and art of many cultures,” Tair explained. “Growing up with Yemenite music at weddings and other celebrations, it was something we fell in love with, this amazing culture our grandparents brought when they came to Israel.”

When the sisters heard an old recording of “Habib Galbi,” they realized they wanted to honor those traditions — with a modern kick.

“It’s not interesting to bring the tradition as-is,” Tair said. “We wanted to make it ourselves, and to be able to tell the stories from our point of view.”

The trio, she added, was influenced by a medley of musical styles, including hip-hop, reggae and electronica, so they reached out to Tomer Yosef of the blended Gypsy punk band Balkan Beat Box. After the sisters sent him a few demos, he became A-Wa’s producer and added the hip-hop beats.

 “He’s such a great musician and a man of groove,” Tair says. “He understood how to give it this modern touch.”

That touch can be heard throughout the band’s songs, which are all updated electronic versions of Yemenite folk songs, seen in their East-meets-West, Old World-meets-future music video.

Tair says the sisters can relate to the traditional folk songs because they’re oral stories passed down by women, all dealing with women and their life journeys. “Habib Galbi” means “Love Of My Heart.” The music lent itself to the hip-hop beat because traditional Yemenite songs are inherently rhythmic and tribal.

Those natural beats and the sisters’ lively performances mean an A-Wa show is not a shuffling-from-foot-to- foot experience. It’s a theatrical performance. Standing-room audiences dance and sing along as the sisters teach them the words — even though the songs are in Arabic and Hebrew.

 “We really care about giving the audience an experience of a different world that combines the old and the new. Each show is like a celebration on stage,” Tair says. Then she pauses.

“Actually, my sister Liron always says it’s like a first date. They come to the show, they have no idea what it’s going to be like, and then they start dancing and singing, and then we fell in love.”

performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 15 at the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St. $18 standing room.