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A-WA. Photo Courtesy of the Artist. Used With Permission.
A-WA. Photo Courtesy of the Artist. Used With Permission.

What’s with the trios of Jewish sisters named Haim being radically talented musicians? Seriously though. What are the odds? How often do people procreate and have three daughters? How often do those three daughters form a band? How often is that band actually really good? And how often is their last name also Haim? Uncanny.

Anyhow, the three Haim sisters that comprise A-WA may not be waify yacht buddies with Taylor Swift but much like their namesakes from the San Fernando valley, these sisters (Liron, Tagel and Tair) can lay it down. But it’s a different kind of Haim. A little more “CHaim” then “Haim”. And it all goes back to roots.

A-WA. Photo by Hassan Hajjaj. Used With Permission.
A-WA. Photo by Hassan Hajjaj. Used With Permission.

The purpose of A-WA is to take traditional Yemenite music and make it relevant through the delicate fusion and mashup of folk songs with electronic beats and modern rock. It’s not as random as it might at first seem. Israeli Yemenites have a long tradition of tearing it up on the guitar. So the layering of guitar over the sisters’ voices is a pretty natural extension of a shared cultural heritage. But what really makes A-WA work (beyond the Haim sisters’ harmonics) is the beat. It’s super solid and danceable as hell. And once you create a sound that’s both listenable and also makes you want to move, you’ve won.

Now the crowd at the Skirball was as friendly as you could get. Whole lotta Hebrew being bounced back and forth between the band and the audience. You could feel that there were no shortage of taglit birthright alums getting down with their homies, showing off the moves they picked up at the last Israeli folk dance workshop. But the neutrality of the crowd isn’t really relevant because the music is just … it’s just cool. It has that propulsive North African rhythm and backbeat that you hear in so many other bands that have made their way into the KCRW playlist the last couple years.

It’s no surprise that A-WA has become a favorite in dance clubs in Israel and abroad. And you have to love their style. Taking the stage in traditional caftan robes and muumuu style dresses, they really play up the ethnic identity of their musical roots. But you look down and see they’re wearing argyle socks and chuck taylors. A visual reflection of the super organic and natural blend of genres that they create in their music. Quasi electro beats lean toward a hip hop vibe, especially when the girls and their band start jumping up and down and grooving around the stage. But that Yemenite guitar has an almost Dick Dale surf sound to it. Like something from a Tarantino film. Close your eyes and you can almost trace the ethnomusicology of the sound: hundreds of years from North Africa to Spain to Mexico to El Segundo and Newport Beach (nota bene: Dick Dale was half Lebanese and grew up playing the oud before developing his iconic style of Southern California surf guitar — the circularity of this shit bewilders my inner geek).

A-WA @ Skirball Cultural Center. Photo by Max Sloves (@burrito_savant) for www.BlurredCulture.com)
A-WA @ Skirball Cultural Center. Photo by Max Sloves (@burrito_savant) for www.BlurredCulture.com)

And for the hiphop heads, the sisters’ vocals provide a long overdue nod to the seminal collaboration between Ofra Haza and Erik B. & Rakim on 1987’s “Paid in Full”. Around midway, Yemenite guitar dude picked up a violin for a stand alone solo. It was sick. Such a delicate but powerful sound. And it was a perfect segue to the next song which the girls explained was about “burning love”. But I don’t know if the translation was really necessary. There’s something very onomatopoeic about the lyrics, an intensity that speaks for itself and lays bare the underlying themes. The joy, the sorrow, the passion. It’s all transparent.

Overall, what A-WA does is very sophisticated. The lyrics, melodies, and the choreography are all 100% roots. Yet there’s nothing forced about the way they render it 100% contemporary. But that makes sense when what you’re doing is 100% authentic to who and what you are. By tapping into their own unique slice of Israeli identity, they are reclaiming a tradition. By blending it with beats that will get an entire Tel Aviv nightclub dripping in sweat, they’re initiating a tradition that’s all their own.

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