Cultural icon Shoshana Damari dies

"Israel's artists lost a good friend, the queen of Israeli song."

damari laughing 298 (photo credit: Channel 10)
damari laughing 298
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Fabled singer Shoshana Damari died on Tuesday at Tel Aviv's Sourasky Medical Center after her condition was reported as critical Monday evening due to a severe case of pneumonia which she contracted over the weekend. "She was an extraordinary and wondrous creature," said singer and composer Hanan Yovel, who knew Damari since the beginning of his career. "She was a tiny woman who had the presence of someone two meters tall. She was a very vital woman - whenever we would tell her how beautiful she was, she would say 'I still am.' I think she left this world very happy," Yovel added. "She was especially happy for performing recently with Idan Reichel."
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Born in Damar, Yemen, Damari came to Israel as a two-year-old in 1925. As a child she began performing at weddings with her mother and in her early teens she starred in radio skits and theatrical performances. In 1945, Natan Alterman composed the song Anemones for Damari - it became her signature hit. Damari's first record was released in 1948. Over the following decades, her strong alto voice represented the voice of a land in the process of renewal, full of optimism and hope. In the early years of the state, Damari - in addition to renown for her beauty - first brought the flavor of Middle Eastern music, complete with her guttural Yemenite pronunciation, to mainstream Israeli culture. Together with Yaffa Yarkoni, Damari was also considered to be the quintessential singer for soldiers, for whom she performed in times of both war and peace during the 1960s and 70s. In the mid-80s, Damari returned to the limelight singing a duet with Boaz Sharabi. She was awarded the Israel Prize in 1988 for her contribution to Israeli vocal music, and in the same year released the album and eponymous single Or (Light), which offered a theme of hope during the difficult period of the late 80s. Damari continued to appear occasionally on stage, most recently collaborating on several songs with the singer and composer Idan Reichel. Yovel recalled seeing Damari leave one of her performances with Reichel surrounded by a crowed who wouldn't let her car drive off. "She held out her hand to be kissed like a queen," he remembered. Yovel added that Damari's talent involved performing the hundreds of songs written for her by the country's greatest poets and songwriters, including Natan Alterman and Moshe Vilensky, so that they seemed to have been her own. "Without writing, she left a mark on Israeli music history - like Sinatra, with whom certain American hits are identified." Yovel said he had last seen Damari last week at the funeral of the mother of one of her closest friends, Doron Levinson, a friend who "was always there for her. We always knew that she could count on him." "She was beautiful, laughing, looking like a million dollars," Yovel said of Damari's last days. "Two days later, she still managed to come to the annual ceremony of the Israeli Union of Performing Artists. And then she collapsed." "Israel's artists lost a good friend, a winner of the Israel Prize and the queen of Israeli song," said IUPA chair Yankale Mendel. "She was a mother for us all, giving us love and sharing her humor, and it is a great loss." Mendel revealed that Damari was also a talented artist, and that he had recently been in contact with her about an exhibition of her works, a project he hopes will still go through in the future. "She was a wonderful artist, and she was so flattered by the fact that people recognized that dimension of her creative life. Her eyes really lit up when we spoke about it," he said. "She just filled you with positive energy. Whenever I met her, I was filled with a sense of unusual elation." This week, the Israel Broadcast Authority will dedicate a series of special programs to Damari on Channel 1 and Israel Radio. On Saturday, Gilad Ben-Shach, a musical editor for Israel Radio, will present a special program of songs by Damari that he has collected and edited into three CDs, including rare recordings from the early years of the state and the pre-state period. "Those early recordings are a piece of Israeli history," he said. "She was a real diva," he added. "She gave expression to what was taking place here, and was a symbol of the rebirth of Hebrew music." Ben-Shach said that in addition to experimenting with Ladino, following her work in the theater in the company of Ashkenazi actresses Damari, who was born in Yemen, also picked up some Yiddish, and even performed one Yiddish song. "It sounded great," he said. "She had a great sense of humor." Culture and Education Minister Meir Shitrit also expressed his regret at learning of Damari's passing. "Shoshana Damari's death marks the end of a long period in the cultural history of Israel," he said, noting that in the course of her career she managed to evolve over time and also to receive an impressive amount of international recognition.