The unique and enthralling sounds of A-WA come to us this week straight from their desert surroundings in Israel. They’ve used their Yemenite heritage to influence and shape a modern day take on their music. Come see them at Brooklyn Bazaar this Saturday for a live performance not to be missed.
An appeal of A-WA is that your sound is so different from anything else American audiences have heard. Can you briefly describe the roots of your genre?
As three sister musicians coming from a Yemenite family, we can say that Yemenite music has made the largest impact on our sound. We sing folk songs and original songs that we write and compose in the Yemeni Arabic dialect, (which was used by our grandparents) and mix it with other musical influences such as tight vocal harmonies, electronic beats and hip-hop.
A lot of your work mines Yemeni oral history and poetry. What makes this part of your heritage so ripe for reworking and re-imagining? How do you keep it fresh?
In our debut album we focused on very old folk songs that were passed down as an oral tradition from one woman to another for generations. Over the years each listener would intuitively change the lyrics or the melody, take off some parts and add lyrics. That is why these songs are very long, monotonic, repetitive and also very flexible to work with.
In taking these songs and giving them our own interpretation, changes and and performance we are actually continuing our grandmother’s tradition and bringing it to our times with a much fresh approach and up to date production.
Do you find the questions for Arabic-speaking countries and non-Arabic- speaking countries for your show differ? How?
The only difference is maybe the level of understanding the lyrics and the mentality of Yemenite culture. Other than that, to us there is no significant difference and luckily we have a very loving and diverse audience everywhere we go. We get to meet our audiences in person and share our music with them and our experiences from life on the road. Each concert looks and sounds a bit different but it’s always a great celebration of live music and dance.
I love your style, especially in your Habib Galbi music video and in your press photos. Tell me about your inspiration for your look and how it informs your performance.
Our style is another way of telling our story. The folklore we sing was created as a need for liberty and as an outlet to women in Yemen, like our grandmother and great grandmother. So it’s very emotional, honest, daring and theatrical. All of these are expressed also by colorful gallabia dresses, blended with street fashion, converse shoes, tribal jewelry and flower crowns.
I can see the theme of the desert running through the group’s imagery, from your music videos to your style. Can you describe what the experience of living in the desert is like?
Growing up in a small village, located in the desert, on a very isolated mountain, surrounded by great nature and animals, is almost a surreal experience. It developed our creativity and spirituality, and shaped us into the artists we are today. It made us believe that there is nothing we can not achieve. We used the quiet life of the desert to invent ideas, writing songs and stories, painting and dress up in dramatic costumes, expressing ourselves in many art forms. We often gathered our tiny community and put on some shows.
Can you walk us through the process of reworking a traditional folk song? Where do you start? What inspiration do you draw from?
In the first album we collected really old Yemenite folk songs that were created by Jewish women in Yemen, then gave them our own touch and style. It’s been a long journey of finding the right production to work with, sharpening our sound and creating new adaptations for the songs, changing their structure and adding b parts and intros. These days we’re working on our second album and the creative process is completely different. It started with the whole concept, then long sessions of writing original songs from scratch, then writing the melodies. Next is testing new approach in terms of melodies, phrasing and production. We’re very excited by the whole process and really can not wait to share it with everyone.
Photo credit: Rotem Lebel
Interview by: Kathryn Fittinghoff