Born c. 1959; died of internal organ failure related to AIDS, February 23, 2000, in Tel Aviv, Israel; married Doron Ashkenazi, 1997.
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 strife-ridden 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 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 clichs 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'aretz'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."
by Carol Brennan
Ofra Haza's Career
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.
Ofra Haza's Awards
Named best female singer in Israel in 1980, 1981, 1986.
- Selected discography
- 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.