Three women dressed in bright pink djallabahs and headscarves ride across the desert in a white jeep. A trio of b-boys in matching blue tracksuits and red fezzes pull their best moves while an older woman watches in a rocking chair.
These are just a few of the scenes from the music video for "Habib Galbi" (Arabic for "love of my heart"), a song by Israeli sister trio A-WA, which currently has over 2.8 million YouTube views and has become the first Arabic-language song to ever hit No. 1 on the Israeli pop charts. The group (pronounced "ay-wah," which translates to "yes")—Tair, Liron, and Tagel Haim—sing in an obscure Arabic dialect of their Jewish Yemeni ancestors, infusing hip-shaking folk rhythms and ancient lyrics with an electronic Middle Eastern gypsy beat, or "Mizrahi" sound.
"We confuse the audience in a good way. We make people think and open their ears to realize that situations are not black and white. People can be many things, and that's the beauty of it," says Liron, backstage during a recent Toronto concert.
Originally from a small village called Shaharut on the Egyptian border, all six of the Haim siblings fell in love with music at a young age, listening to their parents' record collection including Bob Marley, 70s and 80s prog rock, and gypsy music. They were also drawn to the Yemenite folk cassettes they heard when they visited their grandparents.
The lyrics of that folk music were preserved, but other elements were not—for example, the call-and-response aspect of Yemenite songs, which is is passed down orally from one generation to another. Recovering this aspect of the music was a challenge that Liron, who completed her bachelor's degree in ethnomusicology, readily accepted. She eventually discovered archival references from 45s recorded in the 1950s and 1960s.
"There's a beautiful music scene where young musicians like us are going back to their Eastern roots, be it Egypt or Iraq—they want to bring this sound of their Jewish ancestry," says Liron. "We are a different generation. We don't feel suppressed, as our grandparents did as refugees. Our generation is more open and curious about our family roots."
While this style was shunned during the country's formative years in the 1940s, today it's enjoying a popular revival on the streets of Tel Aviv. A-WA's songs come from a woman's perspective, touching on social issues that are timeless, but adapted for a modern approach with an element of street poetry. "It's very direct and daring, like from the streets, with a Yemeni sense of humour. Full of groove," says Tair.
"Habib Galbi," which has been remixed by artists including French duo Acid Arab and Polish producer P.A.F.F., has received frequent radio play and can often be heard at restaurants, weddings of all cultures, and other celebrations.
It's not just Middle Eastern audiences who are paying attention either—the trio just wrapped up their first North American tour, including shows at this year's SXSW ("It was crazy, like a jungle!" says Tair enthusiastically). In Austin, they were also interviewed by none other than former American Idol judge, producer, and musician Randy Jackson.
During interviews they've clearly accepted their roles as cultural ambassadors, often accidentally speaking in unison, while their live shows capture their powerful harmonies and subversive lyrics. Tomer Yosef of well-known Israeli group Balkan Beat Box (no strangers to colliding genres themselves), has been accepted into the Haim family as a true brother and has been handling their production work. The full album which has been out in Israel since 2015 will be coming to North America this summer, while their Habib Galbi EP has just seen the light of day across the continents.
"People are curious about our identity and the small desert town in southern Israel where we are from," says Tagel. "Yemeni music is something very special."
A-WA's debut EP Habib Galbi is out now.
Jesse Ship is on Twitter.