ISRAEL: Habib Galbi - A-WA
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Yemenite Jewish culture is made accessible through these three sisters' enjoyable Electronica album
This album is made by three Israeli sisters, but from the sound of it, you wouldn’t necessarily know that. Israel is a small country with a huge amount of ethnic and religious diversity within it, both within the Jewish community and outside it. For the purposes of this review, I’ll be talking about the diversity in the Jewish community. Israel was for many years dominated by an Ashkenazi elite (Jews of Germanic or Slavic European origin) that founded the nation and ran the country and its institutions from its inception. In the 1950s, many Mizrahi Jews from Arab lands came to Israel, and found themselves stuck in transit camps as the nascent state struggled to absorb so many new inhabitants. These immigrants found it hard to integrate into Israeli society, in part due to the fact that the European Jews looked down upon the, in their view, uncouth and uneducated Mizrahim. This was reflected in the pop music of the time as well, with much of the popular Israeli music of the time being in the European style, with Arik Einstein being perhaps the most iconic singer of that era (whom we will be reviewing in due course, you Israeli pop fans out there). It is only more recently that Middle-Eastern styles have broken into the Israeli mainstream, and it now dominates much of Israeli music, and as such reflects the acceptance of Mizrahi culture into the mainstream. The Haim sisters who form A-WA (pronounced ‘eye-wah’, which means ‘yes’ in Arabic) are of Yemenite Jewish extraction on their father’s side, and their music is strongly reflective of that cultural heritage, with some songs sung in Arabic, and some in a Yemenite-Jewish dialect of Arabic.
“What they’re effectively doing is reviving Yemenite-Jewish cultural heritage, while also updating it for the modern day.”
A-WA aren’t trailblazers in bringing Yemenite Jewish music to Israeli pop – Ofra Haza was doing it before them in the ‘80s – but they certainly took it to a whole new level by singing in the traditional style which they learned from their grandparents. Their music sounds so authentic it even reached a level of fame in the Arab world, especially Yemen, something unusual for an Israeli band. This all happened alongside the lead single Habib Galbi reaching number one in Israel. Habib Galbi is a reworking of a Yemenite folk song with a modern electronic beat. They describe their style as ‘Yemenite folk n’ beat’ and that’s pretty accurate. What they’re effectively doing is reviving Yemenite-Jewish cultural heritage, while also updating it for the modern day. In doing so, their music is also very Israeli, inasmuch as it represents the cultural hodgepodge that the modern-day state of Israel is.
The album is very consistent, and chances are if you like the vibe from the outset, you will continue to like the album throughout, though the stand-out track is definitely Habib Galbi. It has an infectiously catchy beat that the rest of the songs don’t quite achieve, though a special mention must go to Shamak Zabad Radai, which I found to be their most musically interesting song. Ismer Ma Al Gat is also noteworthy because it is the only song to be sung a completely traditional manner, and as such sounds like classic Arabic music from a bygone era. It is also the last song on the album and it works as a nice send off, a doffing of the cap to the music from the past which has inspired them.
There is also a level of variation in the songs, but not much. Some are a bit faster paced, some are a bit slower paced, but overall, they mostly follow the same formula throughout, with similarly excellent vocal harmonies, Yemenite rhythms and electronic beats. It is all done so well and there’s very little for me to criticise here, aside from the fact that I didn’t really like Yemenite Lullaby as an opening track, but that’s by the by, and hardly a major issue. Although I can’t necessarily say I love the album, it’s definitely interesting, eminently listenable and highly enjoyable. For what it is, it’s great, and it represents an interesting cultural fusion that’s baked into the everyday reality of Israel.