Legendary Israeli singer Ofra Haza has been named one of the 200 best singers of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
In slotting her in the 186th slot, sandwiched by the impressive neighborhood of Bonnie Raitt and Alicia Keys, the magazine wrote: “Inspired by her Yemeni-Jewish ancestry, Haza combined traditional vocal conventions with modern technique to create something that felt at once ancient and ahead of its time.”
Haza’s life was a rags-to-riches story in which she soared high, helped change the Israeli music industry’s perception of Mizrahi music, had a huge international career and died tragically young, in 2000, at age 42, from AIDS, concealing her diagnosis even from those closest to her.
Her breakout moment was when she sang “Shir Ha’freicha,” in Assi Dayan’s 1979 film, Schlager, embracing the stereotypes about Mizrahi women and proclaiming, in a sexy dance number, “I’m a freicha,” a word used as the Hebrew version of the negative slang "bimbo" and which was usually applied to Mizrahi women. Following this opportunity, she made several hit pop records, and in 1983, she achieved the pinnacle of Israeli success by representing Israel at Eurovision with the upbeat, life-affirming song, “Chai,” which came in second and was a European hit.
Her performances of Mizrahi classics helped bring positive attention to Mizrahi music in Israel and around the world. Her version of the song “Im Nin’alu,” a 17th-century poem set to music and given an electronic arrangement by Izhar Ashdot, became a surprise international hit and was cited in Rolling Stone’s writeup.
“Like a call to prayer, the opening phrase of Ofra Haza’s 1984 song “Im Nin’alu” is instantly transportive, sweeping the listener up in her expressive, fluttery mezzo-soprano. And when U.K. production duo Coldcut sampled that passage on their landmark 1987 remix of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full,” it was a cross-cultural masterstroke that helped bring the Israeli singer’s unmistakable voice to the pop mainstream.,” the magazine wrote.
Ashdot recalled that the combination of influences brought to the mix in the song was unique for the day.
“In 1987, if you had told me that the biggest hit in Europe would be a Yemenite/Arabic/Hebrew song, it would have sounded like science fiction to me,” said Ashdot. “It definitely marked the beginning of world music.”
Haza had no problem rolling with the electronic sound, even though it was something she had never done before, Ashdot recalled. The song topped the charts all over Europe, reaching the No. 1 spot in West Germany, Finland, Norway, Spain and Switzerland, and making it to the 15th spot on the US and UK charts.
This hit propelled her to what is arguably the highest level of success ever by an Israeli pop musician abroad, and Haza moved to Los Angeles, apparently poised for a crossover career.
While she did record a Yemenite song, “Daw Da Hiya” with Iggy Pop in 1992, her career abroad did not develop. The documentary details how her manager, Aloni, turned away many music producers and artists seeking to collaborate with her and she returned to Israel.
Some late triumphs in her career included her being cast in a key role in the 1998 animated musical The Prince of Egypt, and singing at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 1994 honoring recipients Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.
In summing up her achievements, Rolling Stone wrote: “On albums like 1984’s Shirei Teiman, 1988’s Shaday, and 1992’s Kirya, her unprecedented splash in the US pop market cemented her status as “The Madonna of the Middle East.”
The top slot on Rolling Stone’s top 200 singers of all time was granted to Aretha Franklin, followed by Whitney Houston and Sam Cooke.
In its introduction, the magazine wrote: “Keep in mind that this is the Greatest Singers list, not the Greatest Voices List. Talent is impressive; genius is transcendent. Sure, many of the people here were born with massive pipes, perfect pitch, and boundless range. Others have rougher, stranger, or more delicate instruments.”
Bezalel Aloni, Haza’s longtime producer and musical director, told KAN Radio Monday morning that he was overwhelmed by the news of Haza’s inclusion on Rolling Stone’s list.
“It makes me miss her and her enormous talent even more,” he said.