Ofra Haza ( November 19, 1957 – February 23, 2000) was an Israeli singer, actress and international recording artist. Her voice has been described as a “tender” mezzo-soprano.
Inspired by a love of her Yemenite Jewish and Hebrew culture, her music quickly spread to a wider Middle Eastern audience, somehow bridging the divide between Israel and the Arab countries.
As her career progressed, Haza was able to switch between traditional and more commercial singing styles without jeopardizing her credibility.
Her music fused elements of Eastern and Western instrumentation, orchestration and dance-beat. She became successful in Europe and the Americas; during her singing career, she earned many platinum and gold discs.
Bat-Sheva Ofra Haza was born the youngest of nine children, to a Yemenite Jewish family, in the Hatikva Quarter, an impoverished neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Her first home was on Boaz Street.
At the age of 12, Haza joined a local theater troupe, and manager Bezalel Aloni spotted her singing talent. He staged many of his productions around Haza, and later became her manager and mentor. At the age of 19, she was Israel’s foremost pop star and retrospectively, music journalists described her as “The Madonna of the East”.
By the time she had completed her military service in 1979, Haza had matured as a singer and was ready to launch a solo career.
Her first album, entitled Al Ahavot Shelanu (About Our Loves), was released in 1980 and yielded a string of popular radio hits, including Hageshem (The Rain), Shir Ahava La’chayal (Love Song For The Soldier), Kmo Tzipor (Like A Bird) and what ultimately became her signature song in Israel, Shir Ha’frecha (The Bimbo Song).
The latter was written for the film Schlager (1979) in which Haza played a leading role.
At first, radio stations across the country refused to play the song due to its lyrics, which at the time were unaccepted, but it quickly climbed the charts and reached No. 1, where it stayed for five consecutive weeks. Later in the year, the album reached gold status.
A second album soon followed, Bo Nedaber (Let’s Talk), eventually going gold, which included the hugely popular hits Tfila (Prayer) and Simanim Shel Ohavim (Lovers Signs).
Her third album, Pituyim (Temptations) came out in 1982 and enjoyed equal success, reaching gold status as well, with such hits as Gabriel and Kol Yom Matchila Shana (A New Year Starts Every Day). With this album, more well-known writers agreed to write her songs, including Tzvika Pick and Nurit Hirsh.
In 1983, Haza’s career jumped to a new level of success and popularity. At the Eurovision Song Contest, she came in a close second to the Luxembourg entry with the song “Chai” (Alive). Her popularity in Israel reached enormous heights. Her first platinum album, “Chai”, released in 1983, became her biggest-selling album to date, and the title track was voted the No. 1 song of the year.
Author and historian John Kennedy O’Connor notes in The Eurovision Song Contest – The Official History that Haza’s performance of this song was highly symbolic as it contains the lyric “Israel Is Alive”. As the contest was held in Munich, Germany, the scene of the 1972 Olympics massacre, there was considerable patriotism involved with the Israeli entry. Additional hits from the album included Amen Lamilim (Amen For Words) and Sof Hakayitz (End Of Summer).
Haza was voted “Female Vocalist Of The Year” four years in a row, from 1980 through 1983. Later that year, Haza released Shirey Moledet which consisted of her renditions of well-known Israeli folk songs, eventually going platinum as well. Public response was so overwhelming, she went on to release two more volumes (in 1985 and 1987).
Bait Ham (Warm House) was released in 1984 and included such hits as Yad Beyad (Hand In Hand), Itcha Halayla (With You Tonight) and the title track. The album quickly went gold. In December that year, Haza released what was to become the turning-point of her career, a collection of Yemenite songs, simply titled Yemenite Songs. Despite lukewarm radio airplay, the album went on to become a best-seller, quickly reaching platinum status. This LP was reissued in the United States by Shanachie Records under the title Fifty Gates of Wisdom.
The album Adama (Earth) followed in 1985 and saw the top writers in the country contribute to the album: Sasha Argov, Naomi Shemer, Ya’akov Orland and Ehud Manor, among others.
The album produced the enormously popular hits, Adama, Goral Echad (One Destiny) and Mishehu Holech Tamid Iti (Someone Always Walks With Me), and reached gold status. Later that year, Ofra released “Shirey Moledet B”, a continuation of her renditions of well known Israeli folk songs. The album went gold.
In 1986, Haza tried to update her sound and gathered with acclaimed producer Izhar Ashdot to create Yamim Nishbarim (Broken Days). The album had an edgy rock sound and the lyrics were deep and personal and written by Haza herself. The album went gold and produced the hits Kol Haklafim (Open Your Cards), Bo Ve-Nagen Oti (Come and Play Me) and Hake’ev Haze (This Pain).
When asked about her musical roots in an interview on KCRW-FM radio (1993, Santa Monica), Haza spoke of her Yemenite Jewish parents, a childhood filled with music and singing and a passion for traditional Yemenite songs, picked up from her mother.
Questioned about the theatre troupe, she spoke of poverty and the total neglect of successive governments for the Hatikvah neighborhood; and how, by way of protest, the community had rallied to create something positive and dramatic, which would make others sit up and take notice of the forgotten neighborhood.
Her major international breakthrough came in the wake of the album Shirei Teiman (Yemenite songs), which she recorded in 1984. The album consisted of songs that Haza had heard in childhood, using arrangements that combined authentic Middle Eastern percussion with classical instruments. Further recognition came with the single “Im Nin’alu”, taken from the album Shaday (1988), which won the New Music Award for Best International Album of the Year.
The song topped the Eurochart for two weeks in June that year and was on heavy rotation on MTV channels across the continent. In the annals of classical hip-hop this song would be extensively re-released, re-mixed and sampled, for example on Coldcut’s remix of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full”.
The single made only a brief appearance in the UK top 40 singles chart, but became a dance floor favorite across Europe and the USA, topping the German charts for nine weeks. Subsequent singles were also given the dance-beat / MTV-style video treatment, most notably, Galbi, Daw Da Hiya and Mata Hari, but none quite matched the runaway success of her first hit.
Im Nin’alu would go on to be featured on an in-game radio playlist of the video game Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, released in 2005 and featured on Panjabi MC’s album “Indian Timing” in 2009.
Haza also received critical acclaim for the albums Fifty Gates of Wisdom (1988), Desert Wind (1989), Kirya (1992), Ofra Haza (1997) and for her collection of children’s songs, L’Yeladim (1982).
In 1992, Kirya (co-produced by Don Was) received a Grammy nomination.
In 1994, Haza released her first Hebrew album in seven years, Kol Haneshama (The Whole Soul). Though not an initial chart success, the album produced one of her biggest hits to date, Le’orech Hayam (Along The Sea). The song did not have any substantial chart success upon its release to radio but became an anthem after Haza performed it on the assembly in memorial to deceased Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a week after he was assassinated.
Radio stations around the country started playing it and people took notice. Its lyrics became even more symbolic following Haza’s own death in 2000.
Her collaborative work with internationally established acts included the single “Temple of Love (Touched by the Hand of Ofra Haza)”, recorded with The Sisters of Mercy in 1992. Thomas Dolby co-produced Yemenite Songs and Desert Wind, where he was also a guest musician. Haza guested on Dolby’s album Astronauts And Heretics (1992), singing on the track “That’s Why People Fall In Love”.
She recorded “My Love Is for Real” with Paula Abdul in 1995 and on Sarah Brightman’s album Harem, Haza’s vocals were included on “Mysterious Days”, thanks to an idea by Brightman’s partner Frank Peterson (ex-Enigma), who produced both Harem (2003) and the album Ofra Haza (1997).
For the Kirya album, Iggy Pop, a friend of Don Was, performed the narration on “Daw Da Hiya” and Haza joined him and a host of other stars for the video and single release “Give Peace A Chance” in 1991. She also sang on the soundtracks of Colors (1988), Dick Tracy (1990), Wild Orchid (1990), Queen Margot (1994) and The Prince of Egypt (1998).
In The Prince of Egypt, she voiced the small role of Yocheved, as well as singing “Deliver Us”. When Hans Zimmer, who was working with Haza on the music for The Prince of Egypt, introduced her to the artists, they thought that she was so beautiful that they drew Yocheved to look like the singer. For the film’s soundtracks, Haza sang the song “Deliver Us” in 17 languages, about half of which were sung phonetically, including:
Czech — “Tak vyveď nás”
Dutch — “Verlos ons, Heer”
English — “Deliver Us”
Finnish — “Johdata”
French — “Délivre nous”
German — “Erlöse uns”
Greek — “Eleftheri”
Hebrew — “Hoshia Na”
Hungarian — “Szabadíts”
Italian — “Ascoltaci”
Norwegian — “Befri Oss”
Polish — “Uwolnij Nas”
Portuguese (Brazilian and Portuguese) — “Liberte-nos”
Spanish (Latin and Castilian) — “Libéranos”
Swedish — “Befria Oss”
On the soundtrack of The Governess (1998), Haza is the featured singer on seven of the twelve tracks and worked closely with film music composer Edward Shearmur.
In 1999, she performed (together with late Pakistani artist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) the track “Forgiveness”, on the contemporary symphony album The Prayer Cycle by Jonathan Elias. As a featured background vocalist, Haza’s voice has been recorded, re-mixed or sampled for Black Dog’s “Babylon” single, Eric B and Rakim’s “Paid In Full (Coldcut Remix)”, “Temple of Love (1992)” by The Sisters of Mercy, and for the M/A/R/R/S hit “Pump Up The Volume”.
The single “Love Song” has been re-mixed by DJs many times, its powerful vocal performance and comparatively sparse musical arrangement making it the perfect vehicle for a dance-rhythm accompaniment.
Covers of songs by other artists included the Carole King/James Taylor classic “You’ve Got a Friend”, Madonna’s “Open Your Heart”, Gary Moore’s “Separate Ways”, and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”.
There were many distinguished live performances and Haza spoke with fond memories of her visits to Japan and Turkey.
Notable too, was her performance at the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo, where she appeared alongside Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor. “Paint Box” was written specially for the event. Her 1990 live recording, Ofra Haza At Montreux Jazz Festival was released in 1998.
Haza shared duets and concert performances with Glykeria, Yehudit Ravitz, Paul Anka, Paula Abdul, Michael Jackson, Iggy Pop, Hoite, Buddha Bar, Ishtar, Gidi Gov, Whitney Houston, Tzvika Pick, Khaled, Prachim Yerushalaim, The Sisters of Mercy, Thomas Dolby, Stefan Waggershausen, Eric B and Rakim, Gila Miniha, Hans Zimmer, Hagashash Hachiver, Yaffa Yarkoni, Shoshana Damari and posthumously with Sarah Brightman.
At the fall of 1999, Haza recorded new material for a new album that she worked on with Ron Aviv, a music producer from Petah Tikva. At the time, she also worked with the Finnish violinist Linda Brava, who released a previously unreleased track called Tarab on her MySpace page on 14 May 2010. On the track, Haza sings in English, Arabic and Hebrew, while Brava plays the electric violin. The track might be the last recording of Haza, before she died.
On July 15, 1997, Haza married businessman Doron Ashkenazi. They had no children together.
Ofra Haza died on 23 February 2000 at the age of 42, of AIDS-related pneumonia. While the fact of her HIV infection is now generally acknowledged, the decision by the major Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz to report about it shortly after her death caused controversy in Israel.
After Haza’s death was announced, Israeli radio stations played non-stop retrospectives of her music and then Prime Minister Ehud Barak praised her work as a cultural emissary, commenting that she also represented the Israeli success story — “Ofra emerged from the Hatikvah slums to reach the peak of Israeli culture. She has left a mark on us all”.
The disclosure that Haza had died due to an AIDS-related illness added another layer to the public mourning. The fact that a star with a reputation for clean living could be stricken caused shock among fans, debate about the media’s potential invasion of her privacy, and speculation about how she had become infected.
Immediately after her death, the media placed blame on her husband, Tel Aviv businessman Doron Ashkenazi, for giving her the disease. Haza’s manager Bezalel Aloni also claimed in his book that Haza’s infection occurred during sex with her husband.
As reported indirectly some years later, her husband had said that she became infected due to a blood transfusion in a Turkish hospital following a miscarriage. Ashkenazi himself died of a drug overdose a year later, on April 7th, 2001, leaving a daughter from his previous marriage and a 14-year-old adopted son Shai Ashkenazi
She is buried in the Artists section of Yarkon Cemetery in Petah Tikva near Tel Aviv.