Ofra Haza the Prolific and Profound

Yemenite Jewish pops meets the hole at the heart of everything

J.P. Williams
The Gleaming Sword

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Yemenite Jewish family, ca. 1930. Photo by Yiḥye Ḥaybi. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Israeli pop star Ofra Haza achieved such success in her home country that it comes naturally to consider her the Madonna of Israel. In the Nineties, her fame spread across borders as she collaborated with musicians as varied as Paula Abdul and Sisters of Mercy and sang “Deliver Us” in the role of Moses’ mother Yocheved in the animated film The Prince of Egypt. Her music, however, had already been defying borders for a decade, the borders of genre. Her 1984 album Shiri Timon, or Yemenite Songs, is a perfect example of her distinctive fusion of traditional and modern styles.

Yemenite Songs blends Eighties dance-pop with Yemenite diwan, a style of traditional music particular to Jewish communities in Yemen.¹ Subject to forced conversion and pogroms by Yemenite Muslims, many Yemenite Jews fled to the British Protectorate of Aden in the years after World War II.² There, they caught planes bound for the newly established nation of Israel in what is known as Operation Magic Carpet.³ Tens of thousands left,⁴ but some stayed, leading to a small number of Jews residing in Yemen until recent years.⁵ Haza’s parents were among those Yemenite Jews who immigrated to Israel.⁶

According to back cover text on the release from GlobeStyle Records, diwan is devotional poetry for singing that may be either religious or secular.⁷ Structurally, diwan proceeds from nashid (acapella prelude) to shira (main song) to hallel (choral praise).⁸ Many diwan use poetry by Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, a messianic figure who lived in Yemen in the 17th century.⁹ Thus, all lyrics on Yemenite Songs are in Hebrew, Aramaic or Arabic,¹⁰ but listeners who don’t speak those languages won’t find that the language barrier impairs their enjoyment of the music.

That’s because Yemenite Songs is irresistible. The diwan structure isn’t always immediately apparent, but the megahit “Im Nin’alu” does begin acapella, introducing listeners to Haza’s pleasant ululations. The rest of the song serves as a good example of the album’s groundbreaking style, mixing diwan’s distinctive tin and tambala percussion (traditionally petrol cans and copper trays¹¹) with strings, woodwinds and electronic embellishment. I especially love how the strings will suddenly swirl in to join Haza mid-melodic line, doubling up for extra effect before cutting out to reappear whirling off elsewhere. The dominant mood is festive.

Lyrically, many of the songs suggest romantic love, although some are allegorical for love of God, as in Song of Solomon. As translated into English by Mimi Lilienthal, the lyrics are rich and sensual, full of metaphors characteristic of the Middle East but universally meaningful. Pomegranates and palaces, cinnamon and scarlet thread, perfume and roses . . . “Lefelach Harimon” and “Ayelet Chen” are prime examples. “Ode Le’eli,” however, rings more like the Book of Psalms with its praise for God as a relief from enemies, and “A’salk” takes a dark turn, lamenting God’s absence when His people are suffering: “The more we have faith in you, the more you ignore us.”

This is a common theme in Jewish thought from Biblical to modern times. In “The Eleventh Commandment,” Jewish essayist and philosopher George Steiner goes so far as to cast Judaism as a religion defined by the absence of God.¹² Not since Baruch, he notes, has anyone met God in person,¹³ and in the time of Auschwitz, God’s absence became painfully conspicuous.¹⁴ “The Holy of Holies,” he writes, “is henceforth known to be truly empty.”¹⁵ Yet the Jewish people continue to believe. This is the kind of faith that demands no proof, does not at times even appear to need its God, and it’s a subject uncommonly profound for the dancehall.

Haza covered Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” for Virgin Voices: A Tribute To Madonna, Vol. 2, released in 2000. Haza’s version opens with vocal runs that wouldn’t be out of place on Yemenite Songs before bringing in brooding synths, shakers, and brushes on snare. It’s sleek and stylish and the album was released mere weeks after Haza died at the age of 42 due to AIDS-related illness.¹⁶ She left, having enriched the world through her music, causing feet to dance and spirits to soar.

References:

[1] Album cover text, Ofra Haza, Yemenite Songs (Globestyle Records, 1984).

[2] Saul Jay Singer, “The Jews of Yemen and Their Magic Carpet Ride,” JewishPress.com, June 16, 2021.

[3] “Immigration to Israel: Operation Magic Carpet — Airlift of Yemenite Jews (1949),” Jewish Virtual Library.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gabby Deutch, “Only one Jew remains in Yemen, U.N. says,” Jewish Insider, March 14, 2022.

[6] Emmaline Soken-Huberty, “Madonna of the East: Ofra Haza’s Sad Story,” Gildshire Magazines, May 26, 2018.

[7] Album cover text, Yemenite Songs.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] George Steiner, “The Eleventh Commandment,” The Best American Essays 2016 (Mariner Books, 2016), 261.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Steiner, “The Eleventh Commandment,” 271.

[15] Steiner, “The Eleventh Commandment,” 272.

[16] Hannah Brown, “New Israeli TV series explores life of pop star Ofra Haza,” The Jerusalem Post, August 13, 2020.

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J.P. Williams
The Gleaming Sword

I write about the intersection of arts and ideas. Maybe some short book reviews for a while.