A-wa, a new Israeli all-girl girl band inspired by Yemenite musical culture, are taking the Arab world by storm. They and Dana International, the late Ofra Haza and almost all the other Israeli artists who have found success in the Arab world have their Mizrahi heritage in common, Gaar Adams writes in 'Sick Beats and Sykes-Picot' (Foreign Policy):
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.”
One of Ofra Haza’s most popular songs, based on the Hebrew poem by 17th c. Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, “Im Nin’alu” (If The Doors Are Unlocked).
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.”
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.
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