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Review: A-WA, 'Habib Galbi'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

A-WA, <em>Habib Galbi</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
A-WA, Habib Galbi

Last year, a newly formed trio of sisters from Israel called A-WA (pronounced "AY-wah") caught attention with a video that seemed to come out of nowhere. In the midst of an arid desert landscape, here was A-WA, resplendent in fuchsia-pink robes and accompanied by three male dancers decked out in blue tracksuits and red snapbacks topped with fez-style tassels. Their singing was just as brash — an old Yemeni folk song, utterly transformed in bracing three-part harmonies and understitched with electronic beats.

That video, for "Habib Galbi" (Love Of My Heart), became a calling card for what A-WA is all about. The band is fronted by sisters Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim, who take the Arabic-language songs of their heritage and recast them for the 21st-century dance floor. Their father's family is Yemeni Jews, whose distinct culture and nearly extinct Arabic dialect bridges the Arab world and Israel; that video for "Habib Galbi" was shot near their home village, in Israel's far south, nearly wedged in between Egypt and Jordan. Even the band's name is a callback to shared cultural identity: aywa means "yeah" in Arabic.

The album opens with an a cappella selection, "Yemenite Lullaby," which features the trio in those signature, surprising harmonies and fully grounded in their desert roots. But almost as soon as you settle into those otherworldly textures, A-WA flips the script and bursts into a psychedelic-soaked, drum-pad-fueled song called "Ya Raitesh Al Warda" (I Wish You Were A Rose). It's here that you really begin feeling the influence of the album's producer, Tomer Yosef, whose band Balkan Beat Box has provided a few massive hits with its distinctive and brassy-brash earworms, including Jason DeRulo's "Talk Dirty" featuring 2 Chainz and Mac Miller's "Goosebumpz."

There's a lot of cheeky humor in the arrangements A-WA worked up with Yosef, a fellow Israeli of Yemenite descent. Take, for example, the ska-ish backbeat and squealed chorus in "Lau Ma Al Mahaba" (If Not For Love), the synth-driven bleeps and bloops that leaven the uneven rhythm of "Galbi Haway" (My Heart Is Lost In Love), and even the overtly childlike singsong of "Ala Wabda" (I Will Begin By Calling You) — a tune with firmly religious lyrics, beginning with, "I will begin by calling you, oh God / The great Almighty / Oh, king of kings / Who has no bounds." The heaviest beats come late in the album, in "Shamak Zabad Radai" (Your Scent Is Of Rada'a), a song that's ripe for remixing.

But throughout, it's the sisters' vocals, perfectly attuned to each other, along with their cutely off-kilter reimaginings of Yemenite folk songs, that makes Habib Galbi such a pleasure, and such a logical continuation of what they started with the "Habib Galbi" video. Instead of earnestly reconstructing the music of their cultural ancestors, A-WA has catapulted this roots material into new terrain.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.