Devotional poetry written by a 17th century rabbi isn’t your typical pop chart fodder. But then Ofra Haza, born on this day in 1959, wasn't your typical pop star.
Born in the poor Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hativah as the youngest of nine children in a traditional Yemeni family, Haza began performing in a local workshop theatre troupe when she was 12. The troupe became popular for its politically-charged productions and she spent the next seven years performing with them under the tutelage of Bezalel Aloni, who would later become her manager.
She left the theatre at 19 to start her solo career, a pursuit interrupted by a compulsory two year enlistment in the Israeli Defense Force. When she returned, she became one of Israel's top singers, her first album in 1980 containing a slew of hits – one of them shooting to No. 1 even when it was banned from the radio for its suggestive lyrics.
Movie appearances and two more hit albums followed, but her fame reached an international level when she was chosen as Israel's representative in the 1983 Eurovision Song Contest. Her performance was a symbolically charged moment, as the competition was staged in Munich, Germany – where 11 years previously Israeli Olympians were taken hostage and killed by a Palestinian terrorist organization – and her song "Chai" featured the lyric "Israel is alive." Haza took second prize and the song became an international hit. It also brought her an unprecedented level of stardom in her home country.
She next recorded Israeli folk songs for domestic consumption, but her first big international album came with 1985's Yemite Songs, a record based on devotional poetry written by 17th-century rabbi Shalom Shabazi. In 1988 a remixed version of her song "Im Nin Alu" topped the Eurochart for two weeks and was an especially big hit in Germany, where it was number one for nine weeks in a row that summer. The single helped her album Shaday sell more than a million copies.
And it wasn't just Europe that had now discovered Haza. The album was successful in the United States – where it won The New Music Award for the International Album of the Year – and Japan, where "Im Nin Alu" took top honors at the Tokyo Music festival. In the years since its release "Im Nin Alu" has been sampled by hip-hop acts like Eric B. & Rakim, Snoop Dogg and Public Enemy. Madonna even used part of the song in her 2005 album Confession on a Dance Floor.
World tours followed. Having relocated to Los Angeles, she collaborated with a number of Western artists, including Iggy Pop, Don Was, Paula Abdul, Thomas Dolby and The Sisters of Mercy. She also contributed to film soundtracks such as The Prince of Egypt (1988), in which she voiced a minor character and sang one song in 17 different languages. In 1992 she was nominated for a Grammy for her album Kirya, and in 1994 she performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.
But in the second half of the 1990s, her career started waning. And despite her international stardom, many in her own conservative Yemeni family saw her as essentially a 'nobody' because she was unmarried and had no children. After long searching for a husband, at 39 she married businessman Doron Ashkenazi. Longtime manager Bezalel Aloni, the most important man in her life to this point, disapproved of her choice of a mate, and clashed with his star client and friend. Despite her desire to raise a family, Haza was still childless two and half years into her marriage.
In the fall of 1999, she was working on a new album of her own as well as collaborating with Finnish violinist Linda Brava. Neither project was completed when she died Feb. 23, 2000, of AIDS-related organ failure at the age of 42. That she'd been infected with HIV had been kept secret and Israel was shocked when the Ha'aretz newspaper revealed the cause of her death. Haza had enjoyed a squeaky-clean image, and was the first Israeli celebrity to die from a disease whose discussion was very much taboo. Many blamed her husband Ashkenazi for infecting her with the virus, though no evidence he had HIV was ever brought forward. He died of a drug overdose less than two years later.
Today Haza is remembered as not simply another tragic pop star, but as an artist whose music helped bridge cultural and political gaps.
Asked about her popularity in the Arab world, Haza told KCRW-FM in Los Angeles, "I get fan letters from Cairo, Kuwait, Dubai, Jordan, Syria. It's wonderful to see that music has nothing to do with politics. We don't have the power of politicians, but we have our power to unite people."