Swinging Modern Sounds #96: Voices of Displacement


A-Wa is a vocal ensemble, a band, a dream, an elegy, a small mobile collective of rhapsodes, three sisters of Yemenite Jewish origin, singing primarily in Arabic. The sisters are Tair Haim, who is the lead singer, and primary composer, and her sisters Liron and Tagel, who sing harmonies. Tair is voluble and warm and confident. Tagel is somewhat quiet and literary. Liron is funny, a little raucous and earthy. The roles, as shown here, are somewhat reversible, easily transposed. They were only hours off the plane, the night we spoke, and so they were exhausted, and permeable in that open-hearted way.

The relevant bio facts are: A-Wa (which means “yeah” in Arabic) mixes traditional Yemenite melodies, Arabic melodies with lovely, swooping quarter-tones, with electronica and hip-hop rhythms, not in a way that seems to want to cast off the rich acoustic point of origin for the songs but in a way that retains both a centrality of percussion and a traditional vein, while nonetheless feeling contemporary and modern. Their first album contained a pretty big international hit, “Habib Galbi,” and it hews pretty close to the formula, really amazing harmonies that feel very western, squibs of synthesizer, and then these melodies that you associate with far older kinds of traditional music. The new album, though, does something else entirely; Bayti Fi Rasi, ventures into conceptual ambition in a way that is immense for a second album.

The album consists of songs that tell the story of their great-grandmother’s life in Yemen, in particular of the dispossession that was the life of the Yemenite Jewish community in Yemen prior to and at the advent of the creation of the state of Israel. The thematic intensity of the material is profound, and the more the Haim sisters talk about it (see below), the more the intense familial ache of the material is upon them. The songs, then, are about the dispossession with respect to the land, but perhaps more importantly, and more urgently, the songs are about women, by women. That Bayti Fi Rasi can do all of this and remain, well, very danceable, very rhythmically satisfying, speaks to the cleverness of the Haim formula. When the songs are closest to the Yemenite narrative, they have their utmost impact, their greatest poignancy, but the new album wants to leave room for dancing and for considerations of the ameliorations that are part of music’s importance amid the conflicts in the region where this music was made. It does both things. Yemen, at the time of this interview, is a place of profound distress, and suffering, and so Bayti Fi Rasi, is an album of remembrance of the motherland, of a motherland that is gone, in a blaze of civil war and famine and hostility, responsibility for which, in part, lies at our own doorstep.

These stories were never far from the surface, even when only hinted at, in our conversation. This was for me, a remarkable and powerful interview. For one thing, the Haim sisters finish each other’s sentences, and despite their different and varied roles within the band, some of which are musical and some of which are organizational and design-oriented, they present a united and perfect loyalty to one another, and, secondly, they have such an intense commitment to the material, to the Yemenite origins of their story, that they can’t seem to fail to make a conversation bend in the direction of the passionate, the philosophical, the deeply felt. We were in a restaurant in midtown, and it was crowded, and we were going to eat, but we never got around to it, because the conversation was so rich, and I had that experience that a critic wants very much to have that I might have talked to them for four or five hours, and that important human work would inevitably have been part of the process, a recovery of the human impulse in dangerous political times, a statement of the value of music, that music transcends, and invites us to lay aside superficial ideological conflicts. The spooky musical bonds of families are so powerful that you start to treat these musical families as though they are one thing, a collective of voices that is a unity of voices, and so, laying aside the problem that this interview was impossible to transcribe, for the reasons I have given, I have taken a great liberty of allowing you to read A-Wa the way you would read a novel, as a stream of voices and melodic interests, beholding the ancient art of weaving, in an interleaving of sisterhood that is really about sisters, but also about the legacy of women from this part of the world.

The album Bayti Fi Rasi is available now, and the A-Wa website is here, and don’t let all the demagoguery, no matter whether accurate or not, keep you from listening to music that is a balm, that is an attempt to heal, that wants especially to name out loud the special difficulty in international strife that is the lot of mothers and daughters.

That’s the introductory spiel, and the now the music of voices.


I’m really interested in how you make the songs.

– Okay, sure.

The record has this conceptual arc in that it has you do with your grandmother and her experience.

– Great-grandmother.


– That means we didn’t know her. We feel we got to know her through the process.

– She’s like the legendary character in our family and we always heard stories about her.

– She was present, that’s for sure.

– She was there in the studio.

What did you use then as sort of background material for making the lyrics?

– Stories from our grandma and from our dad.

– Also, through our experiences. The process was combining her and us into one character. She’s the storyteller of the whole album. We are able to make her voice heard and also our voices and talk about relevant things to women nowadays and back then in Yemen.

– It was easy for us to identify with things she was going through because women are basically the same from the old days and these days.

– Maybe we are improved versions because we are not afraid to say things she couldn’t say because she lived in a society that didn’t see women and she was Jewish in a Muslim country. She was always like a second-class citizen and didn’t accept the rules of society, like arranged marriage and stuff like that; she didn’t like it. They married her at a very young age. I think at ten or twelve.


– She was very progressive for her time.

– She refused to go by the rules. She had her own path. She was a feminist without really knowing the consequences feminism brought.

Give me an example then of a lyric from the album and how you fused together her story with these more contemporary themes. Can you do that?

– I think “Bayti Fi Rasi.”

– The title song.

– Which means “My home is in my head.” She used to wander throughout Yemen from once place to another and people in the village or in the city told her “Why don’t you stay with us?” and she’d say “I can’t stay in one place. My home is in my head.” She always wanted to move on and improve her luck.

– It’s a very interesting statement and we, somehow, can relate to it. Traveling so much in the world, we feel like we carry home with us but home also is not necessarily a place. Maybe it’s a feeling.

– It’s the feeling inside.

– Because of the notion of home we wrote this song; we said “What is a home? You tell me. I found it neither in the city nor in the village, neither in Ibb nor in Sana’a” (which is the capital city), and then the chorus goes: “My home is in my head, a refuge for my heart, wherever I go it follows.” It’s like we spoke through her throat.

– We had to imagine a lot because she passed away, I think, when our dad was twenty… something like that, and we heard a lot of phrases and jokes she used to tell. We used those phrases and had to build a whole song around it so we felt like she was in the room with us.

– Leading the process!

How do you divide up the lyric writing among the three of you? How does that part work?

–It’s really fascinating. It can happen when one of us just has two lines and then the others just help her to develop it or it can start with one word that we put music on. It always changes.

– For the new single, I think it was you… she came up with a checklist for the things she doesn’t have.

– That’s awesome.

– It’s a very poor country; she was struggling all the time and, also, “shoes” means that, if you walk barefoot, you have a very low status. They used to carry a… key. Sorry, my English is not awake.


– They used to have a key on a necklace and that means that you have a home and that you’re okay. So, we use a lot of symbols and we wear a lot of yellow and we hear a lot of stories from immigrants who came from Yemen and we kind of mixed everything together.

– The writing has many ways but, eventually, we finish a song together. When we sit together, that’s the best way…

– …to complete the puzzle…

– …and then it’s like “Okay! We’re done.”

I read that that song had new meaning for you all because of touring, seeing all of the displaced peoples across Europe while you were touring. Does that mean that the success of the first album and being out on the road sort of helped enable this story and helped it to have relevance, in addition to incorporating your great-grandmother into it?

– Definitely. We missed home and we started to question: “What is home?” and “Is it a person we miss?” Now we come from Israel but [our great-grandmother] didn’t really have a home and she was a single mom. She always looked for a new family; she married another guy and it didn’t work out so she married another guy until she had four husbands.

– I think, after the fourth [husband], she realized she couldn’t be like any other woman; she was very strange and a little bit of a feminist without knowing it. She didn’t go according to the norms. She was very independent.

– Definitely traveling made us think about it. In Paris, we saw refugees in the streets and, in Tel Aviv, you see a lot of displaced people. Now they feel more at home, and we felt so lucky but, at the same time, we missed home. We were homesick! We said “wow” at how privileged we are to travel the world and do what we love but we wanted to talk about this issue.

Did you keep your father close at hand during the compositional hand so he could be a resource or was that unnecessary?

– We gathered all we needed from him and then, when we went into the process, we didn’t involve anyone.

– Not long ago he came to visit us!

– We let him read all the lyrics and we played the whole album. He was blown away.

– He was so touched by it.

– He said “How well you described it,” and it was like we knew her.

– We felt like we needed to shut down all the noise. When you want to create something new you need to sort of shut it down and go underground and just go with your imagination. All we needed was the three of us and that’s it just to combine the ideas and have fun with it.

– When we let our dad see all the lyrics he was so touched by it. He said “It’s amazing because you really pay respect to her memory and you really manage to feel things she was going through.”

– He called it the “philosophy of a simple woman.”

– Exactly.

Do lyrics happen first or do lyrics and music happen at the same time? How does that go?

– For this album, since we had a clear concept, we started from the lyrics.

– It’s easier for us to come up with melodies.

– We challenged ourselves!

– We recorded the story first.

– Each song on the album is either a dialogue or a monologue with different scenes that lead to another.

How do you generate the musical part; do you sit with a piano?

– We recorded some ideas and melodies that we had.

Just singing?

– Singing and maybe even some chords on the keyboard and then, also, some voices or things that we wanted to sample later.

– Or even the drums.

– And then we went into the studio with the producer and we gave him some references and he immediately put the program on the computer and we immediately tried to sing on it.

– It was very intuitive because we came with the lyrics already done and the process in the studio was very free.

– Some of the lyrics we took off because we said, “Hmm, it’s not necessary.”

– Even good lines.


Now you’re talking like creative writers. “Cut your darlings.” That’s famous writing world advice.

– There’s one line I miss so much. I believe it’s for the best.

– It’s a very flexible process because you have to come without too much ego because there’s three of us.

– There’s four cooks in the kitchen because of the producer!

– It was very free because each one of us could add our own ideas and, yeah, we cut a lot of the lines that we couldn’t fit in.

– We started in the studio at 10 a.m. and stayed until 6 p.m. almost every day. If we started a song, we didn’t know if we’d finish it by the end of the day or maybe just come up with the chorus or maybe just an idea.

– We left a lot of space for surprises. Sometimes we had very strong ideas or directions for songs. For example, with “Bayti Fi Rasi,” the title track, we wanted it to be like a Yemenite march, like a very strong feeling.

– It’s a theme song.

– That was the first thing we did with the song and, with another song, we wanted it to have a disco vibe, in a way.


– That’s like West Side Story! I’ll tell you why: the lyrics that mean “Here is not Yemen” is like the scene where she’s arriving to Israel and it was only, I think, one year old, a new country filled with lots of immigrants from all around. She saw a lot of tents and not even houses and they put a lot of families together in one tent and told her to get rid of her accent.

– We’re big fans of musical theater so I think one of you said, “I want to be in America!”

– It’s a strong reference.

– It’s a call and response.

– It’s the attitude: to say, “I’ll have my own washing machine.”

– It’s a brilliant song, I’m sorry.

– So, we said, “Why not think of this idea where she says ‘When will I have a home?’ and they say, ‘You have a tent for now.’”

– Stuff like that.

– And “‘I’ll build a family’ and they say ‘Don’t let them take your daughter.’” There was a time when they kidnapped kids from the Yemenites. I don’t know if you know.

Can you tell the story for the tape recorder? Is that all right?

– It was around the 1950s during the Yemenite immigration when kids were kidnapped and taken to other families and the parents were told that the kid died or something. It was really sad and there were a lot of protests.

– We do have a member in the family whose daughter disappeared.

– He found her after years.

– Years later when she was grown up.

She was an aunt to you?

– No, our dad’s cousin.

– So, the song has a sort of disco vibe but it’s very, very harsh in some ways.

As I understand it, with some of the earlier songs before this record, you were adapting melodies that you knew and sang as kids. Is that right? With this record, clearly, you’re departing from that and making your own melodies. Did it come easily simply because you guys sang together so much as kids?

– It’s true that we grew up in a very musical family. Our dad used to sing a lot; he wanted to be a singer himself and he used to play the guitar and the bouzouki and drummed a lot. We used to sing a lot together in the house at a very young age and we had vocal lessons.

– Vocal lessons and theater lessons and dance lessons!

– It’s been like this for years.

– We learned close harmony from jazz.

– We’re six siblings.

Your other siblings sang also?

– Yeah, they’re very musical.

– The three of us were always a band. From a very young age I remember talking about, “We’re going to gather all the kids and we’re going to have a show for this holiday,” and we wrote scripts and songs, all original.

– We grew up in the desert; we had nothing to do there. Everything was so far away; we dreamt of moving to the big city: Tel Aviv. Imagine! It’s not even New York!

– It’s really small in comparison.

– It’s like we’ve been a band for years but only five years ago we made it official.

– And we were listening to a lot of Yemenite music through the years. We feel like it’s easy for us, with this DNA. It’s easy for us.

– But I have to say that the process wasn’t easy all the time.

– It was very frustrating.

– The lyrics are definitely way more challenging.

One thing that I love about the record is that it’s got such diverse influences that you can’t just put your finger on it and say, “Oh, it sounds like this.” For example, to me, there’s a lot of quarter-tone singing that’s very Arabic sounding, you know, and, obviously, at least to my ears, there’s a significant hip-hop influence on it. It’s the mixture of those two things that’s not a thing you hear very often. What does it sound like to you? What do you think it sounds like?

– We have a little bit of Greek influence as well; our dad loves Greek music.

– That’s the bouzouki.

– Yeah! Growing up we listened to Bob Marley, musical theater, progressive rock.

I’m really interested in the progressive rock piece of this. What does that mean to you?

– That’s where the concept album came from.

So, your dad was interested in that music?

– He had a lot of records. He loved ZZ Top.

ZZ Top?

– And Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and the Beach Boys.

Pet Sounds is amazing.

Pet Sounds? Yeah, masterpiece.

– So many influences.

So the concept album as a form was well known to you?

– We knew it’s a thing and that we felt like we had such a great story to tell so we must get a full package.

In this country now, among sort of rock critic people, a concept album is sort of a funny thing. But you all have done such a beautiful thing. The concept is so beautiful that it immediately transcends the tragicomic aspects of the concept album.

– It’s funny because it’s old-fashioned?

Yeah, because it’s old-fashioned.

– In hip-hop I’ve heard some concept albums lately and we love the concept.

– The idea of having a story and different parts…

– We love it.

– It’s hard to put everything in one song.

– So many things to tell.

Are you guys listening to hip-hop?

– Yeah, we’re really into Travis Scott lately, and Kendrick Lamar.

– Kendrick’s a master.

– We fell in love with hip-hop in the ‘90s when we first saw MTV. We mostly saw Outkast and those groups.

You know more about it than I do.

– It’s funny because it got to our village very late but when we saw it we were able to connect the names to the music.

– We used to listen to it on the radio and tape it with cassettes.

My god! It makes me feel old.

– Cassettes.

They’re really back now.

– They’re back. They are back which is strange because I feel like the sound is so awful so, why would people want that?

– For nostalgia.

– It’s a nostalgic moment.

– Hip-hop really reminds us of Yemenite music because it’s based on rhythm and vocal phrasing so it’s really easy to combine the two.

How about the electronic aspect to some of the songs on the album? That feels really contemporary, too, and it’s of interest to me because it’s at some variance from folk roots of the music. At least, in this country, if you say “folk music” it suggests you’re playing an acoustic guitar and maybe someone has a conga. But you’re employing a lot of electronic textures on the album, on both albums. Does that seem contradictory to you or is that just part of how you do what you do?

– It’s part of the fun for us to combine the music with updated sounds.

– And I think we only kept the folk singing and the vibe of it on the album and, with the music, we said we wanted a much more developed and mature sound so we went with more electronic.

– Our bassist played not only the electric bass but also the Moog bass.

– And, also, we took very classic Yemenite rhythms, very hardcore, and combined it with hip-hop and it felt very interesting to us to listen to it in a different way.

Does the electronic stuff present an issue with performing live, or are you going to combine samples with live musicians?

– Yeah, our keyboard guy plays the loops from the computer.

– They’re very rock and roll.

– We have a great rhythm section with the bass guitar, the Moog, the loops, and the drummer.

How do you divide up the vocal parts in a live setting? Is that easy to do, to recreate what you did on the record? Because you’re probably stacking a lot on the record, right?

– It’s like a different form, making the live show out of the record. It’s not always easy.

– It’s always a challenge because you don’t want it to sound like the album, of course. We want to open it for some solos and to engage with the audience.

– We’re still working on it.

– We put the BPM a lot higher

Oh, so it’s faster live?

– Yeah, we want it to be more energetic and up-tempo; there’s a lot of adjustment that we need to do.

– It’s a theatrical event.

– We usually wear a lot of jewelry and very colorful dresses and sometimes we explain specific songs because most of the audience doesn’t get the lyrics.

What about the dynamics of being sisters and doing all of this together? Is it hard or is it easy and hard?


– Mostly easy, and hard sometimes… but mostly easy because we know each other.

– It’s a great power.

– We feel most comfortable and loved around each other so each one can bring her own qualities and ideas and skills.

– Tagel is a graphic designer, so she’s designing the album cover.

– I’d really like to add more skills so the audience can get a full package and a more artistic view of what we do because, naturally, each one of us is good at some stuff. I’m very organized and very logical in some ways—it doesn’t sound very sexy. [Laughter] Logistics is my thing, okay.

– Every time we work on a music video or a new song, we look at the [mood] board and then we add a lot of photos and we give it names. We share it with the team and we pick the specific photographer that we want and the stylist that we want to work with.

– We’re very involved in what we do and we know why we’re doing something.

– The new video, the new single—did you see it?

I saw it.

– We wore very tall straw hats and we had to sew them.

Oh, you did it yourselves?

– We could only find it in Yemen and so we said, “Okay, let’s do it. It’s fun.” So we spent a lot of time just listening to music and talking while making the hats and the mint dresses. Tair is the eldest and she’s like the leader, in a good way. It’s in her DNA so she brings that to the table and, on stage, she expands the songs. She’s very charismatic and very funny. So, it’s fun.

– She has a lot of charisma on stage.

– Oh, it’s a pleasure!

– It’s comforting to do it with your sisters; we don’t feel like we’re missing home too much because we’re together.

– At least we have family around us.

– We can say whatever we want. Sometimes we disagree, but we can express ourselves.

– We’re similar because we have pretty much the same taste in things.

There’s sort of an idea in folk music in the US that siblings necessarily sing together better, that the harmony thing works better in families. You can figure out when other people are going to end lines and sort of where to put the harmonies and stuff like that. Do you have that kind of unspoken ability to intuit one another’s musical ideas?

– It happens all the time on stage.

– Yeah, we’ve been doing it for years.

– If we make a mistake, we make it together.

– Sometimes Tair is singing the lead and me and Tagel have a call and respond and maybe Tair is missing a line or something and we look at each other and we know what to do and it’s just a moment.

– We feel each other.

– We have this formula that really works where I sing the lead and Liron takes the high notes and Tagel takes the low notes.

– We tried it different ways and it didn’t work.

– It comes naturally; sometimes we have to check it on the keyboard but, mostly, it comes like this.

– Right, you find the note and then you just stick with it.

– It’s really fun to do it by ear and then to check and say, “I got it.” It’s easy; we did something special on this album—the fourth interval.

The McCoy Tyner interval.

– It’s like in the Yemeni synagogue where they say chants and prayer—the men, not even the women. We added it to the ending song; it’s like the sound of angels. The last song has a beautiful line—a line we wrote the whole song around: “It’s my last repose in the sun.” It’s something [our great-grandmother] said; one of Dad’s brothers was a little boy and asked, “Grandma, why are you staying here outside in the sun?” and she said, “That’s my last repose in the sun.” It’s like she predicted her death or something. She said, “In a week I’ll be dead,” or something like that, and we thought that was such a strong sentence. The story tells that she knew that the angel of death would visit the neighbor in two days and then he would come to her, so she said, “Please do not leave a glass or anything with water so he cannot clean his scythe.”

– We said “Whoa! We should make a song out of it.” She was going through so many things in her life and she really fought her status and her bad conditions and she did her best. She used to cry and laugh at the same time; she was a very strong figure. Thanks to her we exist. She came to Israel with her grandma when she was a little girl and she did it by herself; she didn’t have money and, when she arrived to Israel, it was chaos. It was a country with so many immigrants and a lot of chaos. She did all this and then, the moment when she sits in the sun, it was like her last moment to soak in the sun, realizing that she’s going to rest on a golden pillow and she’ll be gone.

– We wrote something very jokingly because she was very funny: “I’ll be resting and soaking in the sun…” It’s very hard to translate. “I’ll be closer to God soaking in the sun.”

So this fourth interval that you used in the song is associated with male singers?

– Yes, it’s very spiritual. It’s in the synagogue, so…

– Like the Yemeni Gospel.

– This song is sort of a requiem.

Did you all study music theory?

– We all did but I went to college; I have a BA in Music.

Tair, did you play an instrument?

– Yeah, the keyboards and the buka, but my vocals are my main instrument. I studied classical singing and a lot of jazz; we know many jazz standards.

What if the concept album is actually an opera? Did you think about it that way—that maybe it’s sort of an opera?

– We saw it as more of musical theater or like foreign cinema.

Like a foreign film?

– The way we see the music videos is like a foreign film.

– Tony Gatlif—do you know Tony Gatlif? He comes from a Romani family. The way he makes his movies is very musical. Some of his movies are like this so we see it kind of like that. That’s why we wanted to shoot the video where we grew up around the desert with the palm trees; it looks like the Middle East with the goats. It looks like Yemen. We wanted to speak to the same environment and spirit.

I want to go back to this idea that your great-grandmother was in the studio with you…

– It felt like she was really there. It’s crazy.

It really felt like she was there?

– Yeah, we didn’t want to talk to the family too much about it, about us writing a concept album about her.

– Because it’s always digging in the past and it’s sensitive and personal for the family so we felt like we were doing this in a very private way.

– We got her blessing.

– We felt like she was asking us to do it because we felt so much inspiration and that it must be her effect.

– Sometimes when we were stuck I asked for guidance; I said “I wish I could finish this line,” and, I don’t know, but it felt helpful. We don’t know the full story; we have a lot of questions so we kind of use our imaginations.

– That’s where we put ourselves.

– Exactly. So we say, “Okay, what if I were walking with parcels and, on the way, facing an actual lion?” And she did.

That’s a true story?

– Yeah, in Yemen the kingdom of animals is at night. In our times, it’s a metaphor for facing a fear. Your biggest fear is in front of you and what do you do? We’re facing anxiety sometimes in our times but then there was an actual lion. What a strong story! We had to write about it.

– We always put ourselves in her shoes; we didn’t want to look from the side, writing in third person; we wanted to feel her.

– We wanted to get dirty and to step into her shoes and say, “What would I do in this situation?”

– You immediately think about the daughter you have and if she’s in danger and, “What if I’m not coming back tonight; I’m far away and I have all these bags with me and no one hears me and I’m crying for help.”

– Many of the ideas were given to us. It sounds very creepy, maybe. But it was fun. It was a really fun process.

– Now we can make something really light in the studio.

That’s what I was going to ask.

– We really want to write something in English, but don’t tell.

– Something different.

– With our own sound to keep the Yemenite vibe, of course, because we developed that sound with, like you said earlier with the hip-hop and the Yemeni origins, but we really want to speak a language that people can understand and to see their reaction.

Would you change the kind of ambitiousness of your themes if you did that? Like, would you write love songs or are you going to try to still speak to your experience the way you’ve spoken to it?

– I think both. We also have love songs on this album.

– It’s not exactly a love song. We contacted a Yemeni singer from the 1950s; he’s not really performing nowadays but we grew up listening to him and really love him; he has a beautiful voice. So, we wanted him to play the part of the lost lover, the third husband of Rachel, our great grandma. The story says that she fell in love with someone with a beautiful voice. He used to sing in weddings and they married and then the Muslim sheikh’s daughter fell in love with him and stole his heart and Rachel lost the biggest love she ever had.

– Wow.

– He stayed in Yemen; he never came to Israel and, for a Jew, that was very difficult. He converted his religion and became a Muslim.

An incredible story.

– We love opera. We needed to have the voice of this man.

– His voice was like a nightingale.

– His voice was a curse as well.

– This is what we say in the song. We said “Hey, let’s say that his voice failed him.”

So, you’re going to try to write in English, and maybe you’ll write love songs but also you’ll try to write things that have ambition.

– Something that’s very meaningful for us, of course. Maybe lighter than this album.

– Just what we want to say at the moment but I guess we want to be able to talk to our audience in other languages so, in Hebrew and in English, of course.

– We feel confident with the sound that we created and we never want to do the same thing.

– As soon as we finish a project we’re thinking about the next thing.

– It’s a great thing to have—these two creations. To get better as musicians and as storytellers…

– And to explore other sides that we have. Maybe lighter this time because this album is very, very deep.

– It’s something we just had to release and do it.

Did you play it for your grandmother; is she still living?

– Yeah, we have one song named after her and dedicated to her.

– “Shama’a” is a candle in Yemenite Arabic and her mom, Rachel, called our grandma “Shama’a” because she said “You will be the light to light my path in the world, from the dark world.” We thought that naming a child is like dictating his destiny or something so this is why we wrote “Shama’a”; we wanted to dedicate at least one song to our grandma.

– She hasn’t heard the full album yet.

How old is your grandmother?

– She’s around eighty-something.

– She doesn’t know her exact age because, in Yemen, they didn’t have documents.

– They didn’t have any records or papers.

– We told her about the album and she’s going to see it; she’s very old and not feeling very well.

– She told us that all her life she wanted to go to school to learn. It was impossible in Yemen for women; they didn’t go to school; they stayed in the house; they did the chores and took care of the kids. Even when she came to Israel and reunited with her dad, she thought “Maybe now, I’ll go to school” but it didn’t happen. And she had ten children.

– And one of them is our dad. It’s a long story; she has stories herself. To see, in our generation, that it’s getting better: we’re very thankful. Whenever we stay with her, she tells us how she missed things in life and it’s heartbreaking to hear this and then we realize how lucky we are. The song “Malhuga,” for example, is about Rachel and those women who feel very unlucky. They don’t get the right cars; they don’t have money; they don’t have the status they want. They go around the world living life.

– They have to create their luck because they weren’t born with luck.

– We’re very lucky to have a home but she was always saying, “My home is in my head” which is not saying, “My home is in my heart.”

– It’s a perception of something.

– It’s very logical.

– Maybe because we’re a different generation with a new perspective, a different view. It felt like we had to tell the story. Just like that. It’s something that we were always proud of.

– We think about the art first and then we think about the other things, like what would be more accessible but, first, we go with the heart. As an artist, it’s always coming from that place.

The Yemenite piece of it is so full of pathos that it’s incredibly moving. Have you guys been there?

– To Yemen? No, it’s like a dream.

– We wish to visit.

– I think it’s impossible for us, for being Jewish and also the country is at war. It’s really sad. This is why it was important also to sing to these people.

– We got beautiful comments from Yemeni people—some Muslim and some Jewish—and they tell us that we’re doing such great work spreading this culture and raising awareness about what’s going on and how beautiful this culture is. It’s very heartwarming; we’ve been with them at shows and they write to us.

– Thank God music has wings and it can fly wherever, even countries we can’t reach. The music can make people happy and open their ears to something new.


Photographs of A-Wa by Tamir Moosh.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →