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World Music Legends

Ofra Haza

By Bill Murphy
Published June 5, 2008

Thinking Of A Master Plan...

There was no other way to describe it—the sound was simply hypnotic. Way back in the fall of 1987, if you happened to be crossing at a red light in New York, London or L.A., or better yet, whiling away the wee hours in the basement of the trendiest night spot in the ’hood, chances are you got your ears on a slice of particularly steamy hip-hop that seemed to induce everyone in the general vicinity to fl ood the nearest dancefl oor as soon as it came on. It started with a simple loping beat, followed by a steadily throbbing bass line and the keening voice of an unknown female singer whose otherwordly timbre seemed to conjure something ancient and mythic. The song: Coldcut’s “Seven Minutes Of Madness” remix of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid In Full.” The singer: Ofra Haza.

Haza was virtually unknown in the West at that point, even though she’d been recording and performing in Israel (and parts of Europe) since the early ’70s. The daughter of Yemenite Jews who had been persecuted in Yemen and fled to Israel shortly before it became a state, Haza was born in the poor section of Tel Aviv called Hetikvah (“hope”) in 1957, and grew up listening to her mother sing the traditional Yemenite songs that would later inspire her to pick up a microphone. By the age of 14, she had already made her fi rst recording with a local theater group founded by her neighbor Bezalel Azoni, who eventually became her producer, manager, mentor and close friend.

Her first solo album Al Ahavot Shelanu (Our Love) was released in 1980, and contained the hit song “Shir Ha’frecha” (“The Tart Song”), which caused some controversy among Israeli disc jockeys, some of whom refused to spin the single because of its racy lyrics. The song had been written especially for the 1979 film Shlager (directed by Assi Dayan)—one of two star vehicles for Haza that showed in Israeli theaters that year. Na’arat Haparvarim (a.k.a. West Side Girl, directed by George Obadiah), in which she plays a blind singer who regains her sight, quickly became a cult favorite, with Haza’s natural beauty sending hordes of adolescentmales on a collective hormonal bender.

Her film career was short-lived, however, as she concentrated on devoting herself full-time to music. Modeling her singing style after such Israeli legends as Shoshana Damari and Esther Ofarim, Haza soon developed a pristine sound of her own that was firmly rooted in the Yemenite tradition, which she wore like a badge of protest in a society that still trea