For the last 23 years the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival has brought some of the greatest musicians in the world to Bloomington, Indiana for an unforgettable weekend of musical performance. This year’s Lotus Fest artist roster is overflowing with incredible talent, making the Lotus 2016 line-up one of the strongest yet. If you’ve never attended Lotus Fest, this year’s edition is a perfect introduction.
I spoke with four of this year’s Lotus performers to give NUVO readers a taste of what’s in store September 15-18 at this year’s Lotus Fest.
There’s something magical about the music of A-Wa that effortlessly glides across geographical and linguistic borders. A-Wa are a trio of Israeli sisters whose intoxicating blend of Yemenite folk music with electronic beats has gone viral on social media and propelled the group’s debut single “Habib Galbi” to the top of the Israeli pop charts - the first Arabic language song to earn that rank on the country’s history.
I spoke with A-Wa vocalist Tair Haim via telephone from her home in Israel.
NUVO: I read an interview where you mentioned that your parents’ collection of British psychedelic rock records was a big influence on your musical style. What else were you listening to that shaped A-Wa’s sound?
Tair Haim: We grew in small desert village in Israel called Shaharut. It felt like music chose. We just loved to sing and perform and dance. So we used to listen to music a lot and we stole our parents record collection. I remember a record of Bob Marley and we really loved reggae. We found some records like you said of psychedelic music like Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and Fleetwood Mac.
We grew up around American English speakers because around our village there were people who made Aliyah from the United States. In the local youth center we heard a lot of jazz and American musicals. We fell in love with that too.
We discovered vocal harmonies at an early age from jazz vocalists and Motown artists like the Jackson Five. I would take the middle voice, Tagel would take the high voice and Liron the low one. We had this formula of singing together.
I remember when we used to go to our grandparent's in Gedera which is in the Negev [note: Negev is the Central/Southern desert region of Israel.] We used to visit them on family occasions like weddings and ceremonies. We used to hear a lot of Yemenite music on these occasions and we were surrounded by the Yemenite community. We fell in love with Yemenite music and its awesome groove. I remember hearing the sound if women drumming on a tin drum and singing in soulful voices. It was very tribal singing. It was fascinating for me being a young girl with musical ears.
So we had influence from Yemenite music, Motown, psychedelic music from the '60s and '70s, and then in our teens MTV came. It was in the '90s and we fell in love with hip-hop. So we have many influences, but the Yemenite music was maybe the biggest.
It was hard for me to find my musical identity, because I had so many influences. But when I would sing Yemenite songs I saw people reacted differently. It was like I was singing from a deeper place within myself and I was bringing something that was really coming from myself. So I had this dream to one day record a full length Yemenite record. But I didn't know I would do it with my sisters. My dream is now fulfilled, but in a better way.
When we started this project we were naturally blending the Yemenite music with all these influences from hip-hop and reggae, and we were blown away by the results. We recorded some demos and uploaded some videos to Youtube and we started receiving beautiful comments. That's how we knew we should look for a producer and start recording our debut album.
NUVO: It's my understanding that all the songs on the Habib Galbi album are built around traditional folks song. Is that correct?
Haim: Yes, it's an oral tradition that was passed down from one woman to another. It's a folklore that was created by the Jewish women in Yemen. They didn't know how to read and write. They couldn't participate in the synagogue services of men. So there music wasn't religious. They were secular folk songs they created as an outlet for their emotions. They couldn't express themselves really around men. So everything they wanted to say that was really daring or hard they just expressed through these songs. It's a very flexible material, because if one woman taught her daughter to sing these songs, the daughter might take off a part or change the melody a bit. We used to hear these songs from our grandma and we just took it to our own place and gave it our own twist. We added the vocal harmonies, which is totally a Western element. As are the productions and electronic beats. We tell the stories from our prospective and its really cool to play with.
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NUVO: Your debut video ”Habib Galbi" has racked up over four-millions views on Youtube, are you surprised at how quickly your music has found a mass audience?
Haim: Yes, because we didn't know how people would react to this music. We shot the video near our village in Shaharut. We thought that's how we should begin our story. We can't take it for granted. It's overwhelming to receive all these beautiful things people say and how the music makes people happy in Arabic countries. Then we hear from hipsters in Europe, and even people in the States. We hoped the song would be catchy and make people feel something. Even if they look at it and think it's strange. But it's beyond our expectations.
NUVO: You mentioned the influence of hip-hop on your music. That’s interesting to me as Yemenite music played a unique role in the development of sample culture in hip-hop music. in 1987 Coldcut sampled Yemeni singer Ofra Haza for their groundbreaking remix of Eric B. and Rakim’s “Paid in Full”.
That remix was my first exposure to Yemenite music, as I’m sure it was for many other listener’s in the U.S. and Europe. I’m curious if that record an influence for you and A-Wa?
Haim: Yes, we used to listen to Ofra Haza and we grew up listening to her music. When this Yemenite record of hers came out, we were blown away by it. We know other great Yemenite singers, but she's the most famous singer who brought this music to the world.
When we saw people remix her songs and blend them with hip-hop we felt it was very inspirational. We thought we could also do something of our own as a younger generation. Of course it's a great influence.
NUVO: Do you know how your music is being received in Yemen?
Haim: Wow, it's so funny because we can't go there. We can't perform there. It's too dangerous in Yemen for even people who are from there to be in Yemen right now. But we hear all the time that people are blown away by our music, and that families love to listen to it. Young students who left Yemen and now live in Europe come to our shows, and they say that little girls look at the video of "Habib Galbi" and look at us as role models. It's heartwarming, because thanks to social media we can spread to places that we can’t even go. It's a beautiful thing and we see it as a great gift.
It's a fantasy for us to perform in Yemen. But thank god that people can enjoy it and find comfort in it. We get a lot of beautiful comments from people saying thanks for putting our culture in the forefront and for making us happy in these hard times.
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NUVO: You’ll be playing the Lotus Festival in Bloomington this weekend. The group Balkan Beat Box are sort of like legends at Lotus Festival. They played at Lotus a few times during their career and developed a cult audience here in Indiana through their work at the festival.
Your album Habib Galbi was produced by Tomer Yosef of Balkan Beat Box. Why did A-Wa select Tomer to produce this project?
Haim: When we started looking for producers his name just popped into my head, because Tomer is a man of groove. We really love his music. He's also coming from a Yemenite family, so we had a feeling he would understand our love and appreciation for the Yemenite music. He's all about the blend between hip-hop and music from the Balkan countries. He even mixes some Yemenite influences.
When we contacted him through Facebook, we just hoped he would answer soon. And he did. It was amazing. We started sending him demos we had recorded. My sisters and I used to live together in the same apartment and we would record demos in the living room with our brother who is a sound engineer. We met with Tomer to decide what we wanted the album to sound like. Tomer took our music and brought it to the next level with his amazing production. He called some of the members of Balkan Beat Box and we recorded together, because at that time we didn't have our own band.
So we created this beautiful project with him. He's also the one who shot and directed the video for "Habib Galbi". It's been an amazing journey.
NUVO: You’ve established a really unique sound and direction for A-Wa with Habib Galbi. Where do you see the group heading musically in the future?
Haim: I think on the second album we want to expand our perspective and develop our sound. Everything is open at this point because we can collaborate with cool artists that we love and maybe mix English with Yemenite. The first album was like defining our sound. From here we can only grow and get better and look for other adventures.