The Last Songs of Ofra Haza

Her final, most beautiful works, recorded a few months before her death, are trapped in a legal squabble over the artist's estate

Ten computer files, yellow folders on the computer screen - that's basically what it's all about. The computer is in a studio located in a small room in a house in Petah Tikva. The files, which look completely normal, have a whole world compressed inside them: international rights struggles; a family dispute that has gone to court; and unparalleled musical creations.

The files contain the songs for the last (unreleased) album of Ofra Haza, which she recorded at a home studio with musician Ran Aviv two years ago. The quality of these songs is better than anything Haza's fans have ever heard. The album combines Haza's strong, sweeping and precise singing with Aviv's ethnic-electronic arrangements. It is full of atmosphere, almost mysterious and without a doubt one of the most curious albums of the decade.

Aviv and Haza met in the summer of 1999. Aviv had recently been discharged from the army, where he had served in the entertainment corps and played the keyboard for young artists who are now coming to the fore: Inbar Algov, the soloist in the Gaya group and a niece of Haza's, who introduced Haza to Aviv; Yossi Azulai, who has recorded his soon-to-be-released first album, arranged and produced by Aviv; Miki Goldstein and others.

Aviv, who has been involved in the music industry since he was 17, is self-taught, plays almost every instrument, and is well versed in various musical styles from rock and pop to ethnic instrumental music. His love of computers and music production led to work as a producer for High Five and as an arranger for Yehoram Gaon and Tzvika Pick, among others.

"Haza told me she wanted to record an album of her own, that she had words and ideas and that she wanted someone to put them all together with her," recalls Aviv. "It was clear she wanted to work somewhere relatively isolated, almost in secret. One weekend in August 2000 I went to her home in Herzliya. We chatted and I suggested she come to record in the studio in my home, mainly so that I would not have to shlep my equipment to Herzliya all the time.

Haza, who was already suspicious of many people and wanted mainly to be on her own, surprisingly accepted the proposal. A few days later Haza went to Aviv's home in Petah Tikva. That day marked the beginning of a new chapter, the last one, in Haza's life. She went to Aviv's home several times a week, each time for a musical session that lasted a few hours.

Since the studio was in the middle of the apartment, between the living room and the kitchen, Haza developed a warm relationship with the other members of Aviv's family: his mother, his brother David, who was studying business administration and who is currently trying to protect Aviv from the entanglement in which this talented musician has become caught up.

"Conversations with her were very very optimistic," recalls Aviv. "Of course we knew nothing about her illness, and its very hard to describe the situation. She was content, very charismatic, full of vitality. She was always planning ahead, talking of how we would go to London together, and how she would take part in my production [of the album] with Yossi Azulai.

"I find it strange that people keep telling me she was being led, controlled," says Aviv. "In our work together she always knew what she wanted. I think in this album you can meet Ofra Haza on a very primary level, clean, without a lot of wrappings."

Lyricist Hamotal Ben Zev helped Haza write the lyrics for her songs. "Ofra would phone Hamotal and ask for the endings to various sentences and for help with rhyming lines. Most of it was done over the phone," recalls Aviv. Haza had abstract ideas for tunes and for lyrics, and she would bring them to Aviv's studio.

Together they would work on ideas for whole songs. Haza dedicated the songs to girlfriends, members of her family and to her late husband Doron Ashkenazi (who died after she did).

"They had a very strong connection to one another," says Aviv. "They spoke on the telephone every time she was here and she would play songs for him."

There is no point in downplaying the effort Aviv invested in this album. Haza was known until then as a "hit parade singer," mainly in the pop charts, and even when she worked on ethnic material abroad, her work was improved and polished by experienced producers from the mainstream American music scene. The last album very successfully combines beats that are not too dominant, but complex nonetheless, with Haza's singing.

The other amazing thing about the album is Haza's voice. She sounds strong and full and to know that, a few months after the recordings, she had already become ill and died is surprising all over again each time one listens to the songs.

"She was very professional," says Aviv. "She was usually able to produce that voice from inside her a few minutes after entering the house. She didn't have to rehearse or practice. She simply came in and sang."

In November 1999, after three months of recording, Haza took copies of the files and went to London with her husband to meet with producers with whom she had worked in the past. Their reactions were enthusiastic.

Producers like Craig Leon and others, who had heard Haza's songs from previous years, loved the material very much and expressed their interest in it. "They gave Ofra a free hand in finishing the songs and collecting more material," says Aviv.

"I had really good luck with the music files," relates Aviv. "I usually copy the files to a CD and then erase them from the computer as the work progresses. She kept telling me, `Don't bother, save them.'

"It's a good thing I did save them because now I can open them and work on them again, because they're on the computer. She always said, `You never know,' but I never thought anything of it."

When Haza returned from abroad in November, she made a date with Aviv to continue their work at the beginning of the following month. "And then every time an appointed date arrived I would get a phone call from either her or Doron," recalls Aviv, "that she had the flu and she would feel better in a few days and come to the studio again."

By January Haza was already very ill and she died in February 2000. "After she died everyone was very confused," says Aviv. "I'm just a musician and never intended to get caught up in such a mess."

Since the two sides, the Haza family and the Ashkenazi family, both knew about Haza's work with Aviv, representatives of both families came to the house in Petah Tikva. "I tried to mediate when there was already a big rift between them," says Aviv, "just so I'd be able to work on the songs properly and publish them. I don't think the drafts should be released as they are but rather in a re-recording of each element. As far as I know there are companies abroad that are interested in releasing this disc."

But Doron was with his lawyer and the Haza family had theirs and Aviv's efforts failed. "I felt that I had been burned and was unable to deal with it anymore," says Aviv.

Six months after Haza's death Aviv met with Ashkenazi, who wanted to release the album on which Aviv and Haza had worked together. Ashkenazi had spoken with producers at Warner Music and wanted, among other things, to give some of the proceeds from the album to organizations that helped underprivileged children in Israel.

Aviv wanted to tell Haza's family about the deal but then the story reached the ears of others who had been involved in Haza's career, and who were worried about Aviv's interests. They wanted to take the matter out of Ashkenazi's hands.

"These days I have a lot of fatalistic ideas about how one day a world-renowned singer came to the home of a young 22-year-old musician," says Aviv. "I, who had not dealt much with ethnic music, and not a lot with any particular type of music, found myself deeply involved with this production, and then had to deal with the aftermath."

At the beginning of April 2001, Ashkenazi died. Now the court has ordered a team of three lawyers to handle Haza's estate: one lawyer represents the Ashkenazi family, another represents Ashkenazi's first wife and daughter, and a third represents Haza's family. "We haven't even received Ofra's personal belongings yet," says Zehava Cohen, Haza's sister,"and the house in Herzliya is locked and barred. So it's hard for us to talk about the production of the album and her artistic estate. That will come at a later stage."

"Ofra Haza's estate is being handled in court," says attorney Guy Ashkenazi, who represents the Haza family. "The matter is being considered and it takes time. The court will have to determine who owns [the songs], who produced them and who has rights [to them]."

"Negotiations have begun between various parties for the production of this album," said the Ashkenazi's lawyer, "and I believe it will be released." He would not reveal any details of the negotiations or if they are being conducted with companies overseas.

"All the hearings dealing with Ofra Haza's material are being handled in keeping with purely musical considerations and are not influenced by any outside considerations," says Danny Weiss, the CEO of Hed Arzi, with which Haza had signed a contract. "Representatives of my company are currently clarifying matters concerning the last material [produced] by Ofra Haza," he says.