Sick Beats and Sykes-Picot
This Arabic-language, M.I.A.-inspired Israeli girl band from the Negev desert is looking to become the Arab world's next pop superstar. History isn't on its side.
The music video for “Habib Galbi” (Love of My Heart), a sorrowful Yemeni folk song, opens with a simple shot across the desert. Inside a small hut, an exasperated woman pulls back the woven curtain of a Bedouin tent and croons in Arabic over a hollow, hypnotic drumbeat and ghostly minor key: “Love of my heart and eyes, it is a wonder who has turned you against me.”
From the shisha-smoking old lady with kohl-lined eyes, to the Yemeni dance sequences and classically Arabic mournful undertones, “Habib Galbi” looks like it could be straight out of southern Arabia. And in some ways, it is: The song is sung in authentic Yemeni dialect and is composed from the lyrics of ancient Yemeni folk songs. When a Yemeni friend recently played “Habib Galbi” for his elderly grandmother in Sanaa, their accents were so good she thought that the all-girl singing trio might be from the Haraz, a rugged mountainous region just west of the capital.
But the sandy landscape in the music video is far from the Haraz Mountains — it was shot over 1,500 miles away in the Arabah region near the Mediterranean Sea. Though the Arabic may sound effortless, those singing it actually only know the language as a second tongue. And the band — called A-Wa, a stylized transliteration of Arabic slang for “yeah” — hasn’t even come close to stepping foot in Yemen. They’re Israeli.
The all-sister group’s premier song has already catapulted them far from their small hometown in the dry Arava Valley and cemented A-Wa’s status as Israel’s Next Big Thing. Since the release of “Habib Galbi” in late March, the previously unknown group has garnered a collection of critical praise for its harmonious folk-tinged pop, and their music video has racked up nearly half a million views online.
But what makes A-Wa’s smash debut so unique is that the viral buzz isn’t just coming from inside their country — they’ve also begun making cracks in a notoriously more difficult market for Israeli artists: the Arab world.
Just days after its release, the band’s music video was featured as “Video of the Day” on the popular online forum Muslim Hipsters. The coverage of A-Wa in French-language media has attracted online listeners from Lebanon and Morocco. And, in anticipation of their full-length debut album this summer, their YouTube videos have drawn enthusiastic comments and fans from countries like Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and the United Arab Emirates.
In making a play for Arab ears, A-Wa is seeking fans in a market where even the slightest hint of Israeli involvement in a commercial project could incite boycotts. And history is not on their side.
In a region where something as seemingly innocuous as dairy cows can be fraught with larger implications, the landscape of musical relations in the Middle East has always reflected the broader politics of the area.
In April 1978 — one month after Israel Defense Forces invaded southern Lebanon — Jordanian broadcasters refused to air the performance of the song “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” by Izhar Cohen and Alphabeta, a six-member disco-funk group from Tel Aviv, during the annual broadcast of the Eurovision Song Contest. When it became clear near the end of the three-hour broadcast of the final round that the Israeli contestants were, in fact, going to win Eurovision, several of the non-participating Arab countries screening the competition abruptly ended their transmissions, and thousands of Jordanian television sets inexplicably cut to images of daffodils. Even in the media’s follow-up coverage, the Jordanian media refused to acknowledge what had actually transpired, falsely declaring runner-up Belgium the winner instead.
1978 winners Izhar Cohen and Alphabeta sing their winning song, “A-Ba-Ni-Bi.”
Almost 30 years later in 2005, Lebanon withdrew from its first scheduled participation in the competition — and was subsequently banned for three more years as penalty — after its broadcasters could not guarantee that they wouldn’t pull a similar stunt during the performance of Israeli entrant Shiri Maimon. In 2012, Qatari officials canceled an entire five-day music and culture festival in Doha after they were chastised in Arabic-language media for ignoring the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement and for inviting Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim as guest and performer.
And yet a handful of Israeli artists — from a transgender pop star to the grand dame of Israeli music — have managed to sneak past this barrier.
Even before her Eurovision win in 1998, Israeli artist Dana International had gathered a sizable cult following in both Egypt and Jordan. As an Israeli product, her cassette tapes were banned in the Arab world — but officials from both countries reported that they were being smuggled over the borders in droves in the mid-1990s. At the Rafah border with Gaza, the tapes were secretly brought into Egypt — sometimes disguised as Koranic recitation cassettes — and sold at Cairo music stores for the equivalent of $10 U.S. dollars, five times the price of other cassettes at the time.
Dana International, a transgender artist who commands the stage with her infectious dance beats and deep vocals, found such a large audience in Egypt that, in 1999, local journalist Muhammad al-Gayti wrote a rambling article in which he fretted about her infiltration into Egyptian culture. He blamed this on a variety of offenders: Freemasonry, a vast Zionist conspiracy, and an American lobby trying to secure Dana International an Academy Award. “After [Israel] failed to invade our society militarily, today they have entered our houses by disseminating their poison through the arts,” he wrote. “They have fabricated a Jewish prostitute and called her ‘Dana International’ in order for her to send her moans and disgraceful words from the city of a thousand minarets to invade all Arabs cites and impose her crazy artistry on people’s tastes.”
“One of Dana’s chief appeals was that she was ‘forbidden,’ both as a ‘sex’ artist and as an Israeli,” wrote University of Arkansas Professor of Anthropology Ted Swedenburg in Mass Mediations, his book on Arab popular culture published in 2000. “And the press uproar simply served to drive up both the price and the desirability of her cassette.”
A decade later in 2008, another Israeli pop star became a hit in an unexpected neighboring Arab country. Dance music recording artist Aderet’s song “Say No More” topped the charts of a popular Lebanese radio station and spread to Beirut dance clubs after radio executives reached out to the intriguing singer — who also happens to be transgender — for some of her music.
“They know I’m an Israeli singer, and that it’s an Israeli song,” the coy Aderet said in an interview in 2008. “It feels great, it’s a big honor for me and makes me so happy that they let a 100 percent Israeli song to be played and to top their playlist without letting politics interfere.”
Transgender Israeli Dana International’s provocative and unexpected 1994 smash hit in Egypt known colloquially as “Kiss Me Susu.”
But though Dana International and Aderet both briefly topped the charts, neither artist ever found sustained success in the Arab world. And for that reason, the musicians of A-Wa are looking to model their career after the grand dame of Israeli music: Ofra Haza.
Haza, the most famous Israeli musical artist to break into the Arab market, is also perhaps the most revered Israeli singer in the country’s history. Haza’s musical explorations of her Yemeni heritage won her tremendous popularity — and surprising adoration in the Arab world.
Born in 1957 to Jewish immigrants who fled Yemen to escape religious persecution less than two decades earlier, Haza was raised in the impoverished Tel Aviv slum of Hatikva. The youngest of nine children, she grew up surrounded by family members singing the songs of her ancestral homeland. After finding initial fame by winning a national singing competition as a teenager, Haza completed her compulsory two-year Israeli military service in the late 1970s and then returned to singing with a string of hit pop singles and albums in Israel.
As one of the first high-profile Israeli pop singers of Middle Eastern heritage, Haza was drawn back to the traditional songs of her childhood after her initial run of success in the early 1980s. It was these recordings — like her biggest album, Yemenite Songs, released in 1984 — that drew the attention of fans from outside of Israel and, particularly, inside the Arab world.
In an interview in 2008, one radio executive explained that the success of Aderet came in part because of the bridges that Ofra Haza had built years earlier: “We grew up in Beirut listening to Ofra Haza, “he said. “It is just music.”
Haza was vocal about her relationship with fans from the Arab world, going so far as attempt an unprecedented goodwill trip to Yemen in 1995 as an Israeli artist. (A month before the planned visit, the trip was abruptly canceled after local media harshly criticized Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdul Karim al-Iryani for his quote in an Israeli newspaper assuring that he would help secure Haza a visa.)
When asked about her Arab following before her untimely death from AIDS-related pneumonia in 2000, Haza said, “I get fan letters from Cairo, Kuwait, Dubai, Jordan, Syria. It’s wonderful to see that music has nothing to do with politics. We don’t have the power of politicians, but we have our power to unite people.”
One of Ofra Haza’s most popular songs, 1988’s “Im Nin’alu” (If The Doors Are Unlocked).
Dana International, Ofra Haza, and almost all of the Israeli artists who have found any measure of success in the Arab world have had one thing in common: their Mizrahi heritage, as Israeli Jews descended from the Middle East.
“Dana’s music issues from a wider and extremely rich phenomenon of Mizrahi pop music in Israel that is Levantine and Middle Eastern … and is therefore comprehensible and ‘local’ to Arab audiences in the Eastern Arab world,” Swedenburg wrote in Mass Mediations. “She pushes at the edges from inside a vibrant and innovating tradition, and this makes her music lively and exciting for many Egyptian young people…. Dana’s liminality, the fact that she is at once Arab and Jew, is precisely what makes her dialogue with Egyptian youths possible.”
Before World War II, these Arab-Jewish musicians were an integral part of the Middle Eastern musical landscape, and their music reflects their ancestral homelands. Mizrahi artists’ use of traditional Arabic sounds like the oud (a bulbous stringed instrument similar to the lute), the qanun (a large, stringed soundbox), and quartertone scales originated in North Africa, Arabia, and the Levant and came to the nation of Israel with the mass Jewish emigrations of the mid-20th century. But in fleeing their motherlands to escape persecution, Arab Jewish musicians did not always find a musical or cultural utopia.
As the new nation worked to forge an identity in the wake of its founding in 1948, the culture and rights of European — or Ashkenazi — Jews were perceived as superior to those of the incoming Arab world immigrants, and Mizrahis were systematically marginalized. This applied to the arts as well: The music of Arab Jews was dismissed as “bus station” or “cassette music” — a pejorative stemming from the phenomenon of Tel Aviv bus stations turning into giant informal marketplaces for Mizrahi cassettes — in the formation of the new Israeli national identity. It wasn’t until artists like Ofra Haza and Zohar Argov began melding traditional Arab-Jewish music with other forms in the early 1980s, that Mizrahi music truly entered the realm of greater Israeli pop culture. Indeed, some of the most talented Mizrahi musicians like the al-Kuwaiti Brothers, who were popular in the Arab world in the 1930s and 1940s, are only now — 75 years later — being honored for their historical musical contributions.
A-Wa is now a part of this new wave of musicians declaring their Israeli identity while still exploring and reckoning with the implications of their Mizrahi ancestry. Through a combination of linguistics, cultural heritage, and some feisty beats, A-Wa is bridging an entrenched gap between the two musical markets — Israel and the Arab world — that has only been overcome by a very select group of musicians.
The sisters, who range in age between 25 and 31, are descendants of Yemeni Jews who relocated to Israel in 1949 through Operation Magic Carpet — the first wave of a secret operation to relocate some 50,000 Jews from Yemen to Israel after the country’s establishment. And like many Mizrahi Jews, the Haim sisters grew up singing the songs of their ancestral homeland, with its rich oral history having been passed down through the generations. “We used to steal all of our dad’s old records to listen to the old music,” says Tagel Haim, the youngest A-Wa sister.
In collecting this material for their debut album, the sisters decided to release a full LP of songs comprised of Yemeni poetry. Some of the songs they recorded were familiar from their childhood, with lyrics and melodies that were ingrained at an early age. Others were songs that they only discovered in ransacking Mizrahi musical catalogs, like those of Shlomo Moga’a, a Yemeni musician who immigrated to Israel after World War II — many of which included ancient Yemeni songs that were only first recorded in the mid-20th century, once these Yemeni-Jewish musicians landed in Israel.
Before immigrating, the Jewish women of Yemen recorded their own kind of oral history outside of the male-dominated synagogues by passing down poetry through the generations in the local Yemeni dialect. These records reckoned both with life’s mundane tasks — cooking food and gathering water — as well as its tragedies: a family torn apart, an infant lost too soon. Women often added their own verses and tinkered with their own melodies in the poems as they were passed through the years. It was in the spirit of this kind of flexible artistic license that A-Wa’s hit, “Habib Galbi,” was born.
“This tradition allowed us to use history but also do our own thing to the songs on our album,” said Tair Haim, the oldest Haim sister.
But initially, even the sisters’ father — who himself dreamed of being a musician when he was younger — was puzzled as to why they fixated on Yemeni oral culture.
“At first he didn’t understand why we chose this direction. But then he heard us sing it together like when we were younger,” said Liron Haim, 29, the middle sister of the A-Wa trio. “He remembered our connection to it.”
It was the Arab world’s relationship to poetry that helped Haza transform from a well-known singer into a global sensation — her album Yemenite Songs was a collection of classical Yemeni poetry much like A-Wa. “Nin’alu,” her biggest hit, was actually a poem written 400 years earlier by renowned 17th-century Yemeni-Jewish poet Shalom Shabazi on the glory of the divine:
If there be no mercy left in the world,
The doors of heaven will never be barred.
The Creator reigns supreme, and is higher
than the angels
All, in His spirit, will rise.
To this day, poetry is still highly regarded across the Middle East, and poetry from Yemen — in hailing from the region where the oral form originated and first flourished — is often revered as the region’s most pure and exalted. It is difficult to overstate poetry’s popularity: Even one of the Gulf’s largest television shows, Prince of Poets, cashes in on the phenomenon by pitting the region’s best against one other in the style of an American Idol competition. Like Ofra Haza, A-Wa is accessing the Arab market by tapping into the same proven cultural capital of this highly respected artistic form as ancestors and transmitters of the tradition.
In working with acclaimed Israeli producer Tomer Yosef of Balkan Beat Box, an Israeli group recently sampled by Jason Derulo, A-Wa has also given their authentic take on ancient poetry a modern edge, putting together an album with the sensuality of Shakira, the beats and style of M.I.A., and the raw girl group talent of Destiny’s Child.
“With A-Wa, you get the feeling like you’re hearing the kind of old school vocalists that you don’t get to hear a lot these days,” says Yosef. “They have a complete unity that stands out in the musical landscape. It’s the whole package.”
And though their hipness and musical reflections on culture and ethnicity are winning over some Arab fans, the still uncertain road ahead as an Israeli group tries to break into the greater Middle East remains fraught with cultural and political hazards.
“[Israeli musicians’ success in the Arab world] has to all be pretty underground and not official, due to the strong and even strengthened pressures against any kind of ‘normalization’ and also the cultural boycott campaign,” Swedenburg says.
Indeed, when the conversation with A-Wa on Yemen veers towards the political, the sisters turn demur.
“We would love to perform in Yemen someday but the situation — it’s…” Tair hesitates, letting her sentence trail off as she searches for the proper word, “intense. We love our fans there, though.”
Like Ofra Haza and others before them, A-Wa is probably happy that their growing fame has thus far stemmed from music alone. As one Yemeni musician friend commented, when she shared the “Habib Galbi” video on her Facebook page, “A Yemeni band in Israel? Forget politics. Sweet sound.” For a group attempting to navigate such dicey cultural territory, that sounds like success.
Photo credit: A-Wa/Tomer Yosef