TEL AVIV — With their ebony hair and Yemeni accented Arabic, singing sisters Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim would probably not seem out of place on the streets of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.
But the sisters, collectively known as A-Wa, or “yes” in Arabic slang, are descendants of Yemeni Jews who immigrated to Israel decades ago.
Today, they live in Tel Aviv.
While siblings singing sweet harmonies might not be big news, these Jewish sisters — who mix near-extinct Yemenite poetry with fast-paced hip-hop and electronic beats — just might be.
Their first song, “Habib Galbi” (“Love of My Heart”), is an updated version of an ancient song passed down orally through multiple generations of women. Released last year, the video clip accompanying the song has gone viral on YouTube, drawing more than 2 million views and thousands of comments from around the world.
The sisters, who are as much in tune offstage as they are onstage, have performed before sold-out audiences in Israel and Europe. National Public Radio recently named the group one of the top 10 global music acts of 2015.
The group has also garnered countless fans in the Arab world, notably in Yemen and other Arab states that do not have formal ties with Israel.
Now they are eyeing the United States.
“We don’t have a label there yet, but we are working on it,” the three sisters said in near unison. They hope to release their first album in the United States in the coming months and are planning a tour there in the spring.
We are sitting on the leafy rooftop of Tair’s trendy Tel Aviv apartment. The sisters, who grew up in a farming village in the barren desert plains of southern Israel, have relocated to this bustling metropolis. But their exotic Middle Eastern upbringing and strong desert ties live on through their music.
In the clip for “Habib Galbi,” the sisters don bright pink jalabiyas that billow in the wind as they move through the arid landscape of their childhood. As the story unfolds and the music heats up, they break away from the watchful eye of a stern white-haired man we presume is their father and rush into the arms of three break-dancing young men. An elderly woman sucking on a water pipe cheers when the six youngsters hold hands and dance together.
“We grew up in the desert, and we thought it would be a natural place to start to tell our story,” said Tair, 32, the eldest sister.
They grew up in the tiny town of Shaharut, a community of about 30 families, close to Israel’s border with Egypt. Surrounded by camels and mountains, the siblings would take walks through the sandy dunes and play in nearby caves. All they had was their imaginations and their love of music.
At home, the family, including three additional siblings, would spend their days singing. Their father would film his daughters on home videos and encourage their musical talents. From an early age, they became known as the “Jackson family of Shaharut.”
“We were a band a long time ago, but we didn’t even know it,” said Tagel, 26, the youngest of the three. “We laugh about that now.”
As for the decision to sing in Arabic, the three said it was natural. Deeply inspired by past Jewish Yemenite singers, they learned the distinct Judeo Yemeni Arabic dialect through songs they heard at family events, weddings and especially visits with their grandparents, who immigrated to Israel from Yemen in 1949.
Between 1949 and 1950, some 50,000 Yemeni Jews were airlifted to Israel in a secret operation called Magic Carpet. An estimated 350,000 Jews of Yemeni heritage live in Israel, and a few hundred still remain in Yemen.
“At first we did not communicate that we are from Israel, we just released the video of ‘Habib Galbi.’ We wanted people to listen and respond naturally,” Tagel said.
“We knew we would get comments from Yemen because it is an old Yemenite song, but it was surprising and amazing to get comments from other Arab countries, too. Even when people found out we are from Israel, the comments were still good and people said they loved our music,” said middle sister Liron, 30.
“People from Yemen told us how much they miss their Jewish brothers and sisters. They feel like we are spreading their traditions,” Tagel said.
The three say they struggle a little to read all the messages they receive in Arabic, but recently they bought a book. And there is always Google Translate.
As for negative comments from fans living in countries traditionally hostile to Israel and Israelis, the three say they pay them little attention, focusing more on the positive.
They also wave off negative comments from fellow Israelis who disapprove of the Jewish girls singing in Arabic, a language perceived by some as that of the enemy.
“We think the solution is to bring a good vibe and focus on the similarities we have rather than the differences,” Liron said.
“We are naturally very positive and optimistic,” Tair said. “I think people get that, which is why they are so attracted to our music and get the whole A-Wa vibe.”