HIDDEN tracks

Music was Pete Paphides' first love. And at this rate, it will be his last.

The life and death of Ofra Haza

Fri, 1st January 2010

We didn’t know she was dreadfully ill until right at the very end.”

Incredibly, it was the second time that news of Ofra Haza’s death had plunged Israel into a state of mourning. Thirteen years previously, in February 1987, a Cessna aircraft carrying the most celebrated Israeli pop star of her generation hit the side of a mountain in treacherous weather, on the border of Israel and Jordan. As rescue planes searched for Haza and her entourage, Israeli newspapers assumed the worst. “All night, the radio played her saddest songs on the radio,” remembers Haza’s manager Bezalel Aloni, who was also on the plane. “We lay there in the desert. Ofra said that whatever happened next would be God’s will.” YouTube footage shows the moment a khaki-clad Haza emerged to a storm of flashbulbs. She bore only a passing resemblance to the singer who, months later, was to make her first and only Top of the Pops appearance singing Im Nin’Alu – the opening song from her career-defining masterpiece Yemenite Songs. Her usually immaculate hair is tousled; her make-up absent. “The day after that was like a national holiday” continues Aloni. “There was such jubilation.”

For many Israelis, it was hard to detect “God’s will” in the manner of Haza’s eventual passing. Ten years ago, the news that she had died, aged 42, as a result of Aids-related complications contrasted against everything Israel thought it knew about her. Throughout the 80s and 90s, her status was comparable to that of Madonna in the West. For all of that, the image she maintained was a wholesome one. “She kept a clean image,” remembers Isthar Ashdoth, a producer and musician who worked with her. “You never saw a picture of her with a man or any dirty gossip. For her, it was all about the voice.”

In fact, she had been entertaining audiences ever since she wandered into had Aloni’s orbit, aged just 11. Both Haza and Aloni came from the poor Hatikva district of Tel Aviv. She was the youngest of eight, born to a generation of Yemeni Jews, whose ancient way of life changed when their entire population was air-lifted to the newly-founded Israel. He was prominent in local political theatre, “She became part of my family along with my wife and two sons,” says Aloni. “I wrote plays… I wanted to be a member of the Israeli Parliament. I was not a songwriter, but I started writing songs for her, and – like a miracle! – they became hits.”

Producer Wally Brill, himself an American-born “secular Jew”, was to work with Haza and Aloni. Speaking to Brill, it’s pretty clear that he is in no hurry to run into Aloni any time soon. “Bezalel was a svengali,” says Brill flatly. “She was part of a whole group of performers who were singing and dancing. He picks her out and says, ‘I make you a big star.’ And, to be fair, that’s exactly what he did.”

In 1983, when Haza represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest, she had enjoyed a string of Aloni-penned hits in her own country. Among a field of contestants that featured Turkey’s Cetin Alp and the Short Waves singing something called Opera Opera and a Danish love song to a washing machine, Haza didn’t have to try hard to distinguish herself. As yellow-clad dancers wobbled their heads in time to the music, Haza sang Hi, a song whose translated lyrics read, “Alive, alive, alive/Israel is alive.” Aloni says that the day before the Contest in Munich, he and Haza went to the concentration camp memorial in Dachau to focus on the performance ahead. For all of that, there was little at this point to suggest that Haza wanted to do anything other than match the success of singers like Olivia Newton-John and Abba – the Western pop stars who enjoyed blanket ubiquity on Israeli radio. However, Haza’s next album was conceived as a thank you to her family – an album of devotional poems and secular street songs passed down from her Yemeni forbears. These were songs that Haza and Yemenite Jews would have grown up with. When Haza sang them, she sounded like a woman who was mainlining the hardships of centuries. Aloni recalls that the sessions had a “holy feeling”, with Haza laying down all her tracks a cappella. “It was like she had a metronome in her head,” he recalls, “She would record one perfect take after another.” If the percussion that vied for attention with the strings and woodwind sounded home-made, that’s because it was. Yemenite Jews had long since used petrol cans and tea trays in order to circumvent the ban on instruments imposed by orthodox Muslims.

Whatever status Yemenite Songs has gone on to accrue within and beyond Israel, the original reception meted out to it was bewilderment. Wally Brill attempts to put Haza’s move into cultural context. “There has always been a sort of ‘chav’ culture in Israel. At this point, the notion of Ofra becoming this poster girl of world music was surreal. It’s on a par with Cheryl Cole deciding that her next album will be comprised of Northumbrian fishing shanties.”

While Israel scratched its head, visiting British pirate DJ Grant Goddard happened upon one of Haza’s new songs and proceeded to set off a remarkable domino effect. Over at the offices of tiny London indie label GlobeStyle, Ben Mandelson heard the song and set about finding out more. “We contacted her label in Israel and said this is an amazing record. Can we release it? And they said, ‘Are you sure? You want to release that one? But what about all the Eurovision stuff, all the great pop stuff? And we said, ‘No thank you. We’d like the Yemenite one, please.”

When Haza died, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said that “her voice had left a mark” on everyone who had heard it. In the case of one song, that seemed doubly so. Hearing Im Nin’Alu on John Peel’s show, emerging DJs Coldcut sampled it for their remix of Eric B & Rakim’s debut hit Paid In Full. Then, when the identity of the voice became known, Im Nin’Alu itself became a top 20 hit. What did Haza think of her cameo alongside a Brooklyn hip-hop duo? Aloni’s reply is nothing if not honest. “Well, they slowed the pitch down – and, for Ofra, it was strange. But I said, ‘Who cares? It’s a hit!’”

As Haza’s stock rose, Aloni was keen to ensure that his charge received treatment commensurate to her new status. After signing with Sire in America, he recalls, “We changed our conditions to fly first class, and to always have a hotel suite, like a star.” If Yemenite Songs – an album which cost £5000 to record – had become a worldwide hit, then there was no telling where its major label successor would propel her.

Wally Brill was enlisted to oversee the project, but he had a bad feeling from the outset. He went to see Aloni and Haza in Tel Aviv. “She lived next door to Bezalel,” recalls Brill. “She was never out of his grasp. There were attack dogs that defended her in the house, and she had to lock them up when you came to visit her, and there was an autographed picture of her with Margaret Thatcher on display. I expected that we were going to make the next record an extension of Yemenite Songs. And all of a sudden, it becomes, ‘George Michael – I want to do duet with George Michael.’ Her songwriter for the most part, though, was Bezalel. I respect his hustle. But people have to know what they’re not good at.”

Brill continues: “We ended up recording at this palatial eight room mansion in Somerset, but Ofra wasn’t happy. She suddenly wanted to do the vocals in Paris. So we all decamp there. She’s in the fabulous suite she wanted, stopping only to do some shopping occasionally.” In Britain, the resulting record Shadai appeared to a muted reception. Reviewers noted that its best two songs were inferior versions of Yemenite Songs tracks. Ensuing albums, recorded with rock-schooled LA sessioneers cost far more to make than Yemenite Songs, yet sold a fraction of that record.

Still, Haza had reason to believe her star was in the ascendant. In Hollywood, where she spent increasing amounts of her time, she was asked to voice Yocheved, Moses’ Mother in The Prince of Egypt and sing the film’s keynote song Deliver Us. When composer Hans Zimmer introduced Haza to the film’s three directors, they modelled the character on her.

Having resisted the overtures of men for all of her adult life, Haza advanced towards her fortieth year unsure who she would settle down with. When she met and fell in love with Tel Aviv businessman Doron Ashkenazi, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be no room for Aloni in the new arrangement. In Letters To Ofra, the book he wrote after the singer’s death, Aloni is damning about Ashkenazi and his motives in pursuing her. However, sometime Ramones producer Craig Leon got to know Haza and Ashkenazi soon after they married. “They were incredibly in love. It was amazing. I mean, he was so doting on her. And they were inseparable.”

At this point, the only help for which Haza was reaching out was musical. In mid-1999, Roger Armstrong, the soft-spoken Irish head of Ace Records – GlobeStyle’s parent company – received a phone call from her. “It was unusual for her to call me. Normally, it would be Bezalel, but of course, he was no longer there.” With some trepidation, Armstrong agreed to meet Haza in a London hotel where she would play him some new songs. “Boy were they good. They just sparkled. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.” Craig Leon, who produced those demos, concurs. “She was writing her own stuff. She’d said that this was what she had always been longing to do, but no-one would let her.”

At this point, events assume a bewildering momentum. Days before Haza was due to sign a deal with EMI’s Hemisphere imprint, she returned to Tel Aviv. “We spoke to them on the phone though,” continues Leon, “Doron said he was going to send a pen to us – and this was the pen with which the deal would have to be signed.” Leon’s wife, the singer Cassell Webb produces the Schaeffer pen in question. “We didn’t know that she was dreadfully ill until right at the very end. She called us right on the last day of her life. She said, ‘Don’t worry. I’m going to be better.’ I mean, she’d been here with us a few days before.” Aloni says that he attempted to visit Haza in hospital on the weekend of her death, but security guards employed by Ashkenazi prevented him from doing so.

Within hours of the news that Haza had died from Aids-related complications, the recriminations began. Most Israelis believed that Ashkenazi infected Haza with the virus. “I heard he was well-known in the little underworld,” says Brill, “And he infected her with a terminal disease which was never named by her. She never sought medical help for it because she was so humiliated and held such loneliness…” A visibly upset Brill struggles to gather himself. “It’s crazy when you think about it.”

On this, Brill and Aloni seem agreed. Haza’s longtime manager calls him a “murderer.” But Craig Leon and Cassell Webb, who continued to see Ashkenazi after Haza’s death, say he was “devastated, obviously”. For the first time, they relay his side of the story. “They had conceived a child. They were on holiday in Turkey, apparently, and she lost the child and had to go to the hospital and that in the resulting blood transfusion, that was when she contracted the virus. That’s what Doron swore it was.” Whether Ashkenazi himself had the virus has never been proved. A year later, he succumbed to a drug overdose. His family have refused to reveal whether he had Aids. And what of those final recordings? Aloni insists that they shouldn’t appear – “it’s best for people to remember her in a very good way, not in a crying way” – but then, recorded as they were after he and Haza severed ties, he appears to have no legal claim over them. Ten years have after her death, the songs that looked set to relaunch Ofra Haza are no closer to a release. Craig Leon, himself unsure of their status, removes a CD from the same draw where the Schaeffer pen resides and plays me three of them. Barely accompanied and piercingly beautiful, you can hear them in either of two ways. Either as liturgies to new love from a woman who has finally found her soul mate, or a cry of abject desolation from a place too dark to imagine.

This is an unabridged version of a much shorter feature which ran in The Guardian to coincide with a documentary I made with producer Laura Parfitt called Israeli Madonna – a link to which can be found here: http://www.haza.co.il/radioPlayer.asp?file=/AUDIO101230001.mp3&desc=30/12/2010%20-%20The%20Israeli%20Madonna%20(BBC)