Hypermetric Asymmetry in A-WA’s ‘Habib Galbi’

A hit song has been sweeping across Israel and the Middle East: “Habib Galbi,” by A-WA, a group of three Yemenite Jewish sisters who combine traditional Yemeni-Arabic folk music with electronic dance music (EDM).

The song has topped the charts in Israel—the first time an Arabic-language track has done so—and beyond.

The music video for the song went viral:

There is much of interest sociologically about the song. Alex Shams addresses this in his Middle East Eye article “Arabic tops Israeli charts as Yemeni sisters take Tel Aviv by storm.”

Although Mizrahim, Jews of Arab descent, make up the majority of Israeli citizens, they have always been discriminated against—leading some to refer to them as second-class citizens (leaving Palestinian Israelis as what scholar Rashid Khalidi calls third-class citizens). Moreover, Mizrahi music was banned on Israeli radio for decades, where only “superior,” “civilized” music by Ashkenazim (Jews of European descent) could be played.

Just as the US has long stolen, appropriated, and commodified music made by Black Americans, while simultaneously discriminating against them throughout society, Israel too commodifies music made by Mizrahim, while simultaneously discriminating against them.

Other observations can be made about “Habib Galbi,” and particularly its accompanying video, vis-à-vis orientalism and attraction to the unknown and “exotic” other.

The sociological implications of the song aside, however, there is much of hypermetric interest in the music worthy of its own scrutiny. This present work will be devoted to analyzing not the larger political and cultural implications of the music, but rather its distinct asymmetrical metrical organization.

(Note: The term asymmetrical is used in this work in lieu of “irregular”—as is customarily employed to refer to asymmetrical rhythmic patterns—because the latter can be construed as a qualitative judgment, implying that symmetrical quadratic metric organization is “regular,” that is to say normal and perhaps even ideal.)

Musical Overview

The electronic music behind the singing in “Habib Galbi” is exceedingly repetitive.

Metrically, the song is all in duple meter. It never leaves 4/4 or 2/2, depending on how one feels it.

Harmonically, the music consists almost entirely of complete stasis, with little or no motion.

Even rhythmically speaking, the song is overwhelmingly repetitious. The following slightly syncopated phrase is repeated with slight variation throughout the song:

Habib Galbi rhythm

On a hypermetric level, nonetheless, the song is unique for its EDM style. Asymmetrical phrase groupings, or asymmetrical hyberbeats, form the basis of the song.

There are three metric layers to “Habib Galbi.”

Metric Layer 1: Meter

The first layer is just the meter: duple and symmetrical. This is to be expected in the style of music. “Habib Galbi” draws firmly from EDM, along with hip hop, both of which are overwhelmingly in duple meter.

Metric Layer 2: Phrase

Above this basic first layer, however, many of the phrases in the song—and more specifically some of the phrases of the primary musical theme—consist of five bars.

The introduction to “Habib Galbi” ends at 0:19. Here, from 0:19 to 0:25, one musical phrase is sung—a five-bar phrase.  Although the five bars making up this phrase are metrically regular, the phrase itself is hypermetrically irregular. Each bar is equivalent to one hyperbeat, so the larger phrase that makes up the second metric level consists of five hyperbeats.

Metric Layer 3: Phrase Groupings

The next grouping, above this second layer, is another asymmetrical stratum.

After the first five-bar phrase is sung from 0:19 to 0:25, a repetition of this phrase follows from 0:25 to 0:31.

From 0:31 to 0:36, however, the subsequent phrase is apocopated. In the previous two five-bar phrases, the vocal line ends with an accent on the downbeat of bar five. Rests fill the rest of the bar, at the end of which the singer sings a pickup note into the following phrase. In this third phrase in the larger phrase grouping from 0:31 to 0:36, nevertheless, the fifth bar that consists mostly of rests is cut off. Instead, the singer elides into the fourth phrase in the phrase grouping.

After this third phrase, which consists of just four bars, a fourth phrase follows, which also has only four bars.

This fourth phrase is then repeated. The final, fifth phrase again consists of only four bars.

In all, this third metric layer is comprised of five phrases, some of which have five hyperbeats. In other words, there are two different levels of hypermetric asymmetry in “Habib Galbi.”

Schematically, this hypermetric organization looks like this:

Phrase Grouping

(Phrase 1) 5 bars

(Phrase 2) 5 bars

(Phrase 3) 4 bars

(Phrase 4) 4 bars

(Phrase 5) 4 bars

In total, each phrase grouping consists of not 16 bars (4+4+4+4), as is customary in Western music, but rather 22 bars (5+5+4+4+4).

This phrase grouping does not appear just once. In fact, it is the primary musical theme of the song. It is repeated numerous times (four times in its entirety, to be specific).

Formal Organization (Metric Layer 4)

If one were to go up another layer metrically, one would be left with the highest possible stratum: the form of the song. “Habib Galbi” is in a kind of harmonically and tonally static binary form, consisting of alternating A and B phrases.

Each of the five-hyperbeat phrase groupings can be seen as the A section. After the first A sounds from 0:19 to 0:45, an instrumental interlude follows from 0:46 from 0:55. This interlude can be seen as a contrasting B section. Although the melody here, played on a synthesizer, resembles that sung in the previous formal section of the song in its use of rhythm and melodic mode, it is strictly symmetrical and quadratic—that is to say, it is compromised of a simple grouping of four phrases, each of which consists of four bars in duple meter.

From 0:55 to 1:21, A is repeated. B follows again after this. This binary pattern follows for the duration of the song.

Schematically, this formal organization looks like this:

Form

Intro (0:00 to 0:19)

A (0:19 to 0:45)

B (0:46 to 0:55)

A (0:55 to 1:21)

B (1:22 to 1:31)

A (1:31 to 1:58)

B (1:58 to 2:07; repeated again from 2:07 to 2:17)

A (2:17 to 2:44)

B (2:44 to 2:53; repeated again from 2:53 to 3:03; repeated a final time from 3:03 to 3:12)

A (just the first bar of the phrase, from 3:12 to the end)

Reflection

Although asymmetrical phrases are not very common in popular music, they do appear every now and then—especially in styles influenced by traditional and folk musics. What is rare to hear in popular music, however, are passages that contain both asymmetrical phrases and asymmetrical phrase groupings.

A-WA describe their music as a combination of EDM and Yemenite folk music. In the former, asymmetric metric and/or hypermetric organization is uncommon; in the latter, it is prevalent. Their music, then, finds its metric middle ground, if you will, through asymmetrical groupings of symmetrical meter. In this way, A-WA can round off the asymmetrical rhythms of Yemeni-Arabic traditional music with the symmetrical meter of EDM and hip hop.

It is difficult to get people accustomed with Western music to dance to asymmetrical meter. If “Habib Galbi” were in 5/8, many listeners would likely find it difficult to “find the beat” and dance to the song. In place of metric asymmetry, A-WA, whether unwittingly or wittingly, preserve traditional Yemenite rhythms through the utilization of hypermetric asymmetry.

The fact that the song is wildly popular demonstrates just how effective such an approach is, and makes it all the more interesting.