Looking Back at Ofra Haza's Transformation, 20 Years After the Death of Israel's Iconic Singer

Well before her death in 2000 of AIDS, Haza's incredible talent and embrace of her Yemenite roots took her from a local pop success to an international star

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Ofra Haza, from the cover of the album "Yemenite Songs."
Ofra Haza, dressed in a traditional Yemenite outfit, on the cover of her album "Yemenite Songs."Credit: Hed Artzi
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Three of the legendary Israeli singer Ofra Haza’s 42 years remain the focus of almost every treatment of her after her death, and especially as this week’s 20th anniversary of her death approached. Her last three years – from when she married Doron Ashkenazi in 1997 until her death in 2000, are repeatedly put under a microscope, scrutinized, mapped out and deciphered – her relationship with her husband, her longing for a child, the breakup with her longtime manager Bezalel Aloni, her illness, the secrecy and ultimately her death.

Her death did not just cause shock and deep sadness because of the sudden passing of a great, admired and relatively young singer, but also because of the total contradiction between the circumstances of her death and Haza’s image, which was all pleasantness, innocence and clarity. She was a beautiful crystal ball that suddenly shattered without anyone knowing it was cracked.

Haza. At the start of her career, her hit song “Shir Hafrecha,” (“Song of the Bimbo”), created an ostensibly cheap image for her.Credit: Ben Lam

Since Haza’s last three years have been so repeatedly documented that they have come to overshadow the other periods of her life, it’s worthwhile, 20 years after her death, to focus on three other years, those in which she reached her peak as a singer (and also discovered herself as an artist). This happened between 1984 and 1987.

Haza had already passed the stage of being Israel Radio’s Singer of the Year, which she had won the previous four years running, from 1980-83. But from an artistic perspective, these were the years in which she produced her best and most interesting songs and albums, those that have stood the test of time.

These three dramatic years began with the 1984 recording that at the time wasn’t perceived as a resounding event, but in retrospect turned out to be a defining moment in her career and one of the vocal pinnacles of Israeli music altogether: the recording of “Im Nin’alu,” and in particular the first near-minute that Haza sang a cappella.

The link between Haza’s Yemenite roots and the pop music world in which she operated was an innovation at the time, but what stands out in “Im Nin’alu” is not the concept but the execution. It was perfection. Benny Nagari, who produced the song and the album on which it appeared (“Yemenite Songs”), did amazing work (which has been somewhat forgotten following the pioneering remix of “Im Nin’alu” by Yizhar Ashdot and Yair Nitzani, which a few years later advanced Haza’s international career).

Ofra Haza in the late 1980s. What stands out in “Im Nin’alu” is not the concept, but the execution.Credit: Alert / ullstein bild / Getty Im

But the main wonderment is Haza’s singing. In retrospect she sounds like she’s gone through a true metamorphosis. Within 50 seconds, Haza turned from a gifted and successful but limited singer in terms of the quality of her songs and the range of her expression, into a singer with a much greater emotional and artistic range.

Two problems

There is no intention here to dismiss what Haza did before “Im Nin’alu.” She was the most successful female Israeli singer in the first half of the 1980s, she recorded quite a few lovely songs, but when you listen today to her albums from that period, the flaws and shortcomings are just as evident as the strengths.

These were eclectic recordings, a bit from here and a bit from there. American-inspired pop, between soul and disco; a local version of mainstream; even a bit of rock; for adults but for children too. Haza and Bezalel Aloni (Aloni is usually seen as the man who exclusively directed Haza’s career, but we cannot rule out the possibility that Haza had a significant influence on her own career, even in the early stages) tried in those albums to do whatever could work at that moment, the way things are done in the pop industry.

The song “Im Nin’alu” was a formative moment in her career, and one of the vocal heights in all of Israeli music.

But there were two problems. First, the songs were not good enough. Aloni was not satisfied with the role of manager and guide; he also wrote the words and music to most of the songs in Haza’s first album, although he is limited as a songwriter and composer.

The cover of Ofra Haza's single 'Im Nin’alu.' The remix became a major hit that opened the world market to her music.

Another problem was related to Haza’s image. Her albums were pop albums, but something in her did not totally adopt the persona of a pop singer, largely because the ethos of Israeli music didn’t reward female singers who went in that direction. On the contrary. At the start of her career, her hit song “Shir Hafrecha,” (“Song of the Bimbo”), created an ostensibly cheap image for her, and she and her manager didn’t want to repeat the same mistake. Pop at its best is the music of passion and liberation, but those characteristics were there after totally absent from Haza’s music.

The songs themselves, especially Aloni’s songs, emphasized this lacking. They often hovered in some kind of imaginary childish world of exaggerated innocence. “Shmor na aleinu kemo yeladim” (“Watch over us like children,” from “Tefila”), “Bayit cham, bayit cham, yalda rotza bayit cham” (“A warm home, a warm home, a girl wants a warm home” from “Bayit Cham”), “Lihiyot itach ba’agadot, malkat kesamim venifla’ot” (“To be with you in the fairy tales, queen of magic and wonders” from “Malkat Kesamim”) and others.

In these songs Haza was not portrayed as a total woman, but as a kind of child-woman, one who believes in the good and in divine power. Today, when God can be found around every corner in Israeli pop, and the outright secular worldview is an almost lunatic minority opinion in our contemporary soundtrack, we can forget how different the situation was decades ago. Israeli pop of the 1980s, not to mention Israeli rock, were almost totally secular arenas. Religious feeling was not well received by the radio editors and other gatekeepers.

Almost nobody sang about God. Ofra Haza did, a lot. “Bechol hamidbarot ani lecha tefila” (“In all the deserts I am a prayer for you” – “Azor Li”), “Belechticha li lakachta tefilati ha’achrona” (“When you left me you took my last prayer” – “Halachta”), “Yesh od tefilat lev harishit” (“There’s another silent prayer in my heart” – “Acharei Hahagim”) and many others. That may have been another profound reason why many Israelis, religious or traditional, felt connected to her.

Of course there is a basic difference between this naïve, one-dimensional writing about God and the profound call of Rabbi Shalom Shabazi: “Im nin’alu daltei nedivim / Daltei marom lo nin’alu” (If the doors of benefactors are locked / The doors of heaven are not locked”). That doesn’t mean that Haza stopped looking at the world in her naïve way from the moment she sang “Im Nin’alu,” and yet it seems that something basic changed in her. Her singing sounded different, more expressive, and the way in which she directed her career together with Aloni was transformed.

Aloni wrote fewer songs, Haza began to write herself, and if until the mid-1980s her albums included a bit of everything, from the middle of the decade there was a clear conceptual separation between one album and the next. This change in approach was one of the reasons for the excellent series of Haza’s albums between 1984 and 1987.

After the album “Shirei Teiman” (Yemenite Songs), Haza was expected to return to pop, full of a sense of mission to create as many hits as possible. She did so, but in an interesting way. First, in 1985 she released the album “Adama” (Earth), which looked back at Hebrew song, but not in the routine way of offering new versions of old favorites (something that Haza did in three other 1980s albums).

In “Adama,” Haza performed new songs composed by Naomi Shemer, Sasha Argov, Effi Netzer, Shem Tov Levy and Yair Klinger. The result was a kind of modern Hebrew song. Haza may have gone to these materials because she was envious of the great success of Yardena Arazi with songs in a similar vein. Whatever the case, Adama was a very beautiful album, which produced some of Haza’s most beloved songs.

Almost a jaw-dropper

Your jaw almost drops when you finish listening to Adama and go on immediately to the album “Yamim Nishbarim” (Broken Days), which was released a year later, in 1986. There’s a tremendous difference between the two albums, both in sound and content. “Yamim Nishbarim,” produced by Yizhar Ashdot, is a synthesized, direct and visual pop album.

After the Yemenite songs, the contemporary song of Adama and the old-time song of the album Shirei Moledet B (Songs of the Homeland 2), which was also released in 1985, Haza dove into the world of synthesizers and drum machines of the mid-’80s, and not only did she experiment with a sound that was not at all identified with her, she also did so, for the first time, with songs for which she wrote the words and the melody (in some cases together with Ashdot).

It sounds on paper like a recipe for failure – too many experiments for one album – but “Yamim Nishbarim” is a wonderful album. The courage paid off. This may have been the first time when Haza expressed herself in the full sense of the word, and she sounds complete, exposed and liberated.

Ofra Haza in 1989. In purely artistic terms, there was a price for the international success. Credit: David Rubinger / Corbis / Getty

Haza’s experiments continued in 1987 with the remix of “Im Nin’alu.” The ability of a single remix to open locked doors and launch an international career is well known today, but in the 1980s the remix was still a suspicious entity. Haza could have panicked at Ashdot and Nitzani’s work of dismantling and assembly, which included a distortion of her most precious resource, her voice, and the introduction of a heavy hip-hop rhythm and meaty basses on a synagogue piyyut (liturgical poem). But she didn’t panic, and the remix became a major hit that opened the world market to her music.

Naturally and inevitably, the international channel became the main avenue of creativity in Haza’s remaining years, from 1987 until her death 13 years later. In purely artistic terms, there was a price for the international success. Haza’s unique vocal quality was so profound and characteristic, that it came through even when she sang in English, to the delight of millions of non-Israelis who loved her singing.

But the way she expressed herself in English was not nearly as beautiful and natural as in Hebrew or Yemenite. There was also some kind of artificiality in the way her image was marketed to the international audience. She was presented as an exotic diva, with characteristics that did not suit her personality.

When she was active in this country, Haza was able to shed these artificial additions. But there were not many opportunities. She recorded only one Hebrew album after her international breakthrough. The songs she recorded right before this breakthrough, in those three years of experimentation and maturation, remain her most impressive artistic legacy.

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