The first Israeli recording artist to achieve international renown, Ofra Haza was also a phenomenon in the Middle East with the wide crossover appeal of her music. Haza sang in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, and her songs bridged a cultural gap in this striferidden part of the world between its Jewish, Muslim, and Christian music-lovers. In 1988, she scored a massive hit with “Im Nin’alu,” a Yemeni prayer set to a catchy disco beat; it sold more than a million copies and remained a dance-floor staple for months across Europe and North America. Her music, a People reviewer once wrote, merges “the coiling quarter-tone melodies of traditional Yemenite folk music to the crisp electronics of modern dance-pop in a remarkably satisfying fusion.” Over her 20-year career, Haza became one of the most successful recording artists Israel had ever produced, and when she entered a Tel Aviv hospital in February of 2000 for an undisclosed illness, fans gathered outside to hold vigil.
Born in the late 1950s in Tel Aviv, Israel, Haza was one of nine children born to parents who had emigrated from Yemen some years before. An impoverished and for many years unstable nation at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, at one point Yemen once banished its Jewish population to the desert; Haza’s parents were then rescued by military airlift and granted entry visas into Israel. But Jews from Yemen are generally among Israel’s poorest citizens; Haza and her family lived the slum area of Tel Aviv, a neighborhood known as Hatikva. Back in Yemen, however, her mother had been a professional singer, and Haza remembered her singing to her children from an early age. Haza herself began to exhibit the same musical inclination, and at the age of 12, joined a local protest theater group recently founded by a neighbor of hers, Bezalel Azoni.
Azoni would become an integral part of Haza’s singing career as a songwriting partner and manager over the years, recognizing in the teenaged Haza a unique talent. She soon emerged as one of the most gifted performers in the company—also called Hatikva—and recorded four albums with other members. She even won a national singing contest in Israel. Many of these early songs of hers were characterized by lyrics that protested the discrimination Yemeni Jews and other immigrants from Arab countries faced when in Israel.
Like all young people in Israel, male and female alike, Haza entered the Israeli army at the age of 18 for two years of compulsory service, which she spent as a secretary. Afterward, she was signed to a record label as a solo artist. Her first album featured tracks like “The Tart’s Song,” a musical rant in which a young woman rejects the conservative values of her society. Initially, Haza’s albums achieved only nominal success, and received little or no airplay on the radio, but her defiant
For The Record…
Born c. 1959; died of internal organ failure related to AIDS, February 23, 2000, in Tel Aviv, Israel; married Doron Ashkenazi, 1997.
Began career in the theater in Tel Aviv, c. 1971; appeared on four LPs with members of theater troupe Hatikva, early 1970s; released first solo LP in Israel, c. 1978.
Awards: Named best female singer in Israel in 1980, 1981, 1986.
lyrics caught on with young people, and her records began selling well. She was named Israel’s best female singer in 1980, 1981, and 1986. In 1983, she was chosen to represent her country in the well-publicized Eurovision song contest. Producers there liked her voice, and invited her to record an album for European distribution.
This period of Haza’s career coincided with her desire to return to the music of her particular heritage. As she later told a New York Times journalist, Peter Watrous, “Yemenite music has a good, special dance rhythm. Nobody can hear it and stand, without dancing.” She began adapting traditional songs, adding modern percussion and electronic instrumentation, and 50 Gates of Wisdom: Yemenite Songs was the result. Its lyrics were borrowed from a famous liturgical poem dating back to the sixteenth century. She and Azoni had simply wanted to make a record that their older, tradition-minded parents would like, and were taken by surprise when the record became an underground hit in European dance clubs. The English group Coldcut heard one of the songs, and sampled it into a remix they did for rappers Erik B. and Rakim. “That gave my song a big push,” Haza told the Wall Street Journal’s Amy Dockser Marcus. “People that didn’t know me heard my voice on a rap song.” Watrous wrote of the catchy, intriguing sample in this particular song, “Paid in Full,” in his New York Times article. “Out of left field comes a woman’s wailing voice, obviously Middle Eastern in its gentle, hilly melismas,” he observed. “But her voice fits in perfectly, suggesting different cultures colliding and yet having fun.” Some of Haza’s vocals were also remixed into another notable track from this era, “Pump Up the Volume,” from M/A/R/R/S. That particular track from 50 Gates of Wisdom, “Im Nin’alu, (If the Gates of Heaven Closed)” was remixed and released as a single in the United States in 1987. It went on to sell a million copies worldwide.
Haza’s emergence onto a more global stage coincided with the rise of a new genre, which quickly came to be tagged “world beat.” Signed to Sire Records, Haza recorded Shaday, released in 1988. Many of its tracks were based on another famous liturgical poem, the Song of Solomon. It would become her most successful album to date, selling a million copies globally with its mix of songs in Hebrew and English. A review by Michael Small in People, however, faulted the work for the overly sentimental balladry in its English tracks. “It’s too bad Haza doesn’t rise above musical cliches more often because her sparkly clear voice, sometimes resembling Barbra Streisand’s, seems able to handle something more challenging,” opined Small.
Haza toured the United States in 1988, and for a time, lived in Los Angeles. In 1990, she released Desert Wind, her first full English-language album. Yet as she told the Wall Street Journal’s Marcus, “it may be in English, but it’s still my message.” One track, “Fatamorgana,” was a homage to her parents’ tragic experiences in Yemen years before. The song contains a chant in Arabic, courtesy of her mother, who sang it into the telephone for Haza from Israel while the album was being made. The song won particular praise from Marcus. “Haza’s lilting contralto evokes the rhythm of her people’s march into desert exile, the heat, the mirages, the sadness,” observed the Wall Street Journal writer.
Around this time, Haza also made a video that aired on the music-video network MTV, making her the first Israeli artist on the channel. Her 1992 album, Kirya, again featured songs in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, and was produced by acclaimed studio genius Don Was; rock stalwarts Lou Reed and Iggy Pop made guest appearances for Haza. The album took its title from the ancient nickname for the holy city of Jerusalem, and Haza had hoped to make a record that could serve as a reminder that peace in the Middle East was long overdue. “So many of our sons have to die every day because of you,” she sang in the title track. The album was nominated for a Grammy award in the World Music category.
By the mid-1990s, Haza was a bona-fide celebrity in the Middle East. Both Israeli and Palestinian teens bought her records, and she was hailed as a positive role model. After a 1993 peace accord between Palestine and Israel—who had fought bitterly for decades over territory that both considered their ancient homelands—the signers of the pact were awarded the Nobel Prize for peace. One of the three recipients, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, invited Haza to perform at the ceremony in Oslo, Norway. A year later, in 1995, Haza also sang at the memorial service for Rabin after he was assassinated.
In 1998, Haza recorded the theme song, “Deliver Us,” to the 1998 Disney animated film, the Prince of Egypt, as the voice of Moses’s mother. The following year, she appeared on a multilingual compilation of holy songs, The Prayer Cycle: Music for the Century by Jonathan Elias, that also featured Alanis Morissette and Perry Farrell. She sang a duet on it with Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Haza was a beloved public figure in Israel, so when she checked in to Tel Aviv’s Tel Hashomer hospital on February 10, 2000, there was much speculation about the cause. Fans stood outside the hospital in a round-the-clock vigil, and it was suspected that the 41-year-old singer was suffering from cancer. She died on February 23 of internal organ failure. As testament to her importance, even the current Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, made an official announcement. “I had the honor of knowing Ofra and was impressed by her shining personality and her great talent,” Barak said, according to Billboard magazine, on the night that Haza died. “Her contribution to Israeli culture was great, and the honor she brought this country will never be forgotten.”
A few days later, however, a Tel Aviv newspaper revealed that Haza had been suffering from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Ha’aretz, the paper, wrote about the anger of some hospital workers because Haza had tried to keep the nature of her illness a secret; they worried that they had been exposed to HIV-positive blood. Haza had been adamant about preserving the confidentiality of her medical records, even after her death. The Ha’aretz story ignited a minor controversy over patients’ rights in Israel, and many felt that the privacy of the singer— who likely wished to spare her conservative Yemenite family the reason behind her fatal illness—had been needlessly violated. As the British medical journal Lancet explained, complaints that hospital employees may have been at risk of infection were dubious, since Tel Hashomer “follows orders from the [Israeli] Health Ministry to treat all patients as if they are carriers of an infectious disease unless proven otherwise.” The newspaper, however, defended itself against charges of sensationalism. “Ofra Haza was a public figure and to a certain extent public property in her life,” Ha’arez’s managing editor, Yoel Esteron, told New York Times writer Deborah Sontag. “In her death it is impossible to leave this chapter in darkness. We are talking about a human disease like any other, and there is no reason to demonize it.”
50 Gates of Wisdom: Yemenite Songs, Shanachie, 1988.
Shaday, Sire, 1988.
Desert Wind, Sire, 1989.
Kirya, Shanachie, 1992.
Yemenite Songs, Cleopatra, 1998.
(With others) The Prince of Egypt (soundtrack), DreamWorks, 1998.
(With others) The Prayer Cycle: Music for the Century by Jonathan Elias, Sony Classical, 1999.
Billboard, March 11, 2000, p. 4.
Ha’aretz (Tel Aviv), February 28, 2000.
Lancet, March 18, 2000, p. 998.
New York Times, March 18, 1988, pp. C1, C25; February 24, 2000, p. A22; February 29, 2000.
People, February 6, 1989, p. 25; October 19, 1992, p. 21.
Rolling Stone, March 22, 1990; April 1, 1999.
Wall Street Journal, February 15, 1990, p. A12.
Ofra Haza (1959–2000) was Israel's leading pop music recording artist. Rising from poverty to stardom, Haza left the slums of Tel Aviv to win World Music Awards and to sing at the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.
An icon in her country, the mezzo-soprano received international attention for her songs that blended ancient Yemenite-Jewish poetry with western music. After releasing 16 gold and platinum albums in Israel and winning the Israeli equivalent of the Grammy Award for best female singer in 1980, she broke into the European and North American markets. She died at the age of 41 due to complications from AIDS.
Started in Theater Group
Ofra Haza was born in Tel Aviv, the youngest of nine children in a Jewish family that had escaped religious persecution in Yemen. Growing up in the poor Hatikva district, Haza came from a musical background. Her mother, Shoshana, sang old Yemenite songs around the house and played the tambour drum. Israeli folk songs and songs from the Beatles and Elvis Presley were also among her musical influences during the 1960s.
At age 12, Haza joined the local Hatikva Theater, a protest theater group established by Bezalel Aloni. Aloni, who would manage her career for the next 20 years, made her the star of the show. She participated in the troupe for seven years, singing and gaining a following and appearing on four albums with the members of the Hatikva Theater.
Israel's Top Singer
During her teenage years, Haza performed in a variety of venues. She hit the Israeli charts with songs about poverty and the discrimination faced by Jews who moved to Israel from Arab countries. She won a national singing contest, appeared on television variety shows, and worked in movies with film directors Zalman King and Goran Bregovich. As is mandatory for all Israeli citizens, she joined the army at age 18 for a two-year stint, working as a secretary assigned to the tank corps. After her military service, she released her first solo album in Israel, signing with local label Hed Azri.
Haza's pop albums became best-sellers in Israel. Her 1979 "The Tart's Song" spoke of independent young women defying tradition and social convention. "At that early stage of her career, all Ofra wanted was to forget her ethnic roots and be an Israeli," commented Yoram Rotem, music chief at Israeli broadcaster Galei Zahal, for Billboard magazine. "She sang simple songs for the ordinary Israeli. They were largely ignored by radio, but fans bought them."
The mezzo-soprano, who sang in Hebrew and Arabic, easily crossed cultural boundaries and garnered numerous awards. Haza was named Israel's Singer of the Year for five consecutive years and went on to record more than 16 gold and platinum albums in her homeland. In 1983, she was chosen to represent Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest, where she placed second. The experience offered her exposure to the European audience.
Recorded Yemenite Songs
By the mid-1980s, Haza had changed her subject matter, returning to songs learned from her parents. She attracted new audiences with the release of three albums of old Israeli songs that soon earned the attention of radio stations. Record producers who had begun to take notice asked her to make an album for international distribution. She decided to honor her Yemenite Jewish heritage by covering the songs her mother used to sing with a pop beat and modern arrangements.
Haza's first international release came in 1985 with the album, Fifty Gates of Wisdom: Yemenite Songs. For the album, Haza created a modern interpretation of a collection of prayers written by 17th-century Rabbi Shalom Shabazi by adding a dance beat that used electronic percussion. She told the New York Times, "I wanted to do an album to make my parents happy."
At a time when the World Beat sound was gaining popularity, Fifty Gates of Wisdom was an enormous success, hitting the club scenes in Europe, and topping the international pop charts. Haza soon became Israel's most popular international recording artist. Rotem said in Billboard, "Ironically, her international success came with the very material from which she wanted to escape. She caught the ethnic wave, and she also had talent, looks, and professionalism."
The album's singles, "Galbi" and "Im Nin'Alu" ("If the Gates of Heaven Closed"), played in dance clubs throughout Europe. "Im Nin'Alu" placed at the top of the singles chart in Germany for nine weeks and ranked number one on the European chart for two weeks. Worldwide, the album sold more than a million copies. In Germany, Haza won the Tigra Award for Singer of the Year in 1989. In 1987, Fifty Gates of Heaven reached the United States. Not long after, Haza became the first Israeli singer to be a guest on MTV.
In a circuitous route to fame, the British group Cold Cut heard Haza's voice on a pirated copy of "Im Nin'Alu" and included it on the group's remix of Erik B. and Rakim's rap song, "Paid in Full." M.A.R.R.S.S. also added her voice to their dance hit, "Pump Up the Volume." Haza commented about her unconventional connection to hip-hop, "That gave my song a big push. People that didn't know me heard my voice on a rap song."
Observed Jewish Tradition
When Haza performed songs from Fifty Gates of Wisdom, she added elements of tradition to her style as well as to her music. She proudly wore traditional Yemenite clothing, elaborately beaded and with ornate Yemenite rings and silver bracelets. Devoted to her religion, Haza observed Jewish tradition when she toured and performed. She avoided holding concerts on Friday night to observe Sabbath and requested only kosher meat.
She was living a very different life from the one her parents expected. "I see in front of my eyes my parents who educated me to appreciate what God gave me. I came from a poor neighborhood. Then suddenly I'm staying in first-class hotels, driving in limousines, flying first-class. Every day I say 'Shema Yisrael' and thank God for giving me this opportunity."
Success in English
A German company asked Haza to record an album in English so it could be released in the United States. Few thought a record with Yemenite songs would sell in America. Haza floundered with English and with the conventional subject matter. "He gave me American songs," she said. "You know, 'Love me, love you, need me.' I didn't like the lyrics but I had no choice." The album was abandoned but the idea of an English release was only postponed.
In 1988, Haza signed on with Sire Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. A new producer helped her to assemble songs such as "Im Nin'Alu" and Haza's earlier Hebrew songs, translated into English, to create the album, Shaday. Released in the United States, Canada, and Japan, it sold a million copies worldwide, and "Im Nin'Alu" won top honors at the Tokyo Music Festival. In New York City, Haza won the New Music Award for the International Album of the Year in 1989.
Two years later, Haza succeeded again with the release of her English album, Desert Wind. Haza co-produced four of the songs on the album, which featured her mother chanting Arabic songs. She conducted a U.S. concert tour to promote the album that included 42 cities. Accepted by an audience no longer wary of foreign musicians, Haza commented about her material, "I think people are a little bit tired of the songs they used to hear. They want to listen to something strange and new."
Sang at Nobel Ceremony
Desert Wind brought increased recognition for Haza. She produced a video for MTV and appeared on American talk shows. In 1991, she participated in the Artists of the World for Peace in the World video of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance." She was also invited to work with the Sisters of Mercy, Paul Anka, Iggy Pop, and Paula Abdul. Her follow-up album, Kirya, featured guest Lou Reed and was nominated for a Grammy Award in the World Beat category.
Her biggest honor came in 1994 when Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin called her Israel's "goodwill ambassador" and invited her to sing at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat. She performed again a year later at Rabin's memorial service following his assassination.
After marrying businessman Doron Ashkenazi in 1997, Haza spent the rest of the 1990s on two movie projects. In 1998, she sang for Steven Spielberg's animated movie The Prince of Egypt, voicing Moses' mother Yocheved. For the movie's international release, she sang in 17 languages, including German, Greek, Polish, and Hungarian, from phonetic transcriptions written in Hebrew.
The same year, Haza sang on the Columbia/TriStar film, "The Governess," which portrayed Jewish life in England in the late 19th Century. The soundtrack was released on the Sony Classical label. Also in 1998, Haza joined the late Pakistani virtuoso Ali Akba Khan for The Prayer Cycle, inspired by music from Judaic and Muslim traditions.
Succumbed to AIDS
On February 10, 2000, Haza admitted herself to Sheba Hospital in Tel Aviv. Despite her fame, she guarded her privacy and refused to inform the media about her medical condition. She and her family forbade the hospital to leak information about her illness to the press. Some reports claimed she was suffering from influenza and that she was receiving treatment for liver and kidney failure. Fans and well wishers, as well as television crews, gathered daily outside the hospital keeping vigil, praying, and hoping to learn about her condition. On February 23, 2000, 13 days after entering the hospital, Haza was pronounced dead from multiple organ failure.
Her funeral, held on February 27, attracted thousands of mourners. Working-class people and the elite, including Shimon Peres, gathered to eulogize Israel's leading recording artist. Bibi Netanyahu paid public tribute, and Prime Minister Ehud Barak issued a statement, "I was impressed by her shining personality and her great talent. Her voice made its way into the hearts of many in Israel and throughout the world. Her contribution to Israeli culture was great, and the honor she brought this country will never be forgotten."
The daily newspaper Ha'aretz had been reporting that Haza was infected with the HIV virus and that AIDS was the cause of her organ failure. The paper was criticized for violating the singer's privacy, yet it defended its decision to report the news, which had existed as a rumor on the Internet and television. In a country where having AIDS was still considered taboo, Ha'aretz's editors believed that secrecy only demonized the disease. Haza's death prompted more discussion in Israel about AIDS and the shame that stills surrounds it.
Some AIDS activists suggested that Ofra Haza could have been her country's Magic Johnson, a celebrity who could have broken down stereotypes and promoted education on AIDS prevention and awareness. Bentwich said in the New York Times, "In this unfortunate case … it appears that Ofra Haza almost died of the embarrassment, from the terrible fear to reveal her illness."
Contemporary Musicians, Volume 29, Gale, 2000.
Billboard, March 11, 2000.
Jerusalem Post, February 24, 2000.
Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, March 3, 2000.
New York Times, February 24, 2000; February 29, 2000.
Wall Street Journal, February 15, 1990.
"Exclusive Interview with Ofra Haza," Shalom, KakAfonia!http://kakafonia.hypermart.net/news/ofra.htm (December 23, 2003).
"Secrecy surrounding popular Israeli singer Ofra Haza's death," National Public Radio: All Things Consideredhttp://www.npr.org/programs/atc/radioshow (December 23, 2003).
Sony Classical,www.sonyclassical.com/artists/haza (December 23, 2003).
HAZA, OFRA (1957–2000), Israeli singer. Haza was born in the Hatikva quarter of Tel Aviv to parents who had come from Yemen. She started singing as a child and at the age of 12 was accepted into the "Hatikva Quarter workshop" under the direction of Bezalel Aloni. Having completed her army service, she took part in 1979 in the movie Shlager where she sang the "freiha" song (lyrics, Assi Dayan, music, Zvika Pik), which became a huge hit and send her to the top of all the charts. She was crowned "singer of the year" four years in a row (1980–1983) and in 1983 represented Israel at the Eurovision song contest. She soared to international fame when her song Galbi ("My Heart"; 1984) was reworked for the European market and became a best seller. Another Hebrew Yemenite wedding song of the famous poet Shalem Shabazi, Im Nin'alu, went through a similar process and sold two million copies in Europe alone. After her performances in New York in 1989 she recorded the album "Desert Wind" (1989) and noted singers such as Paul Anka and Cliff Richards recorded duets with her. In 1998 the producer Steven Spielberg invited her to perform the theme song in his animated epic Prince of Egypt and she did this in the 29 languages the film was translated into. She also gave her voice to the character of Yokhebed. In spite of her international success she remained faithful to the Israeli public and her performances drew huge crowds. She participated and won first prizes in the music festival and the festival of children music. Her repertoire was based in great part on Yemenite singing.
[Nathan Shahar (2nd ed.)]