Dreamlike is absolutely right. Ofra Haza became famous for melding Middle Eastern music with pop, and her best known work is dance floor ready club music with a touch of Aleppo pepper to it, so to speak. However, she didn’t always lean Western, or make herself so accessible. Here she leans the other way. It’s an exploration of a vocal style most Westerners weren’t familiar with, and still aren’t in a lot of places. It’s absolutely mesmerizing, although it won’t fill up very many dance floors. She certainly opened a lot of doors for what Americans and Europeans will dance to, and that’s a hefty legacy. The worlds of pop and of more traditional musical styles are so much more entwined now, and more people get to hear so many more things, which is is beautiful.
By ‘there’ I assume she means the Middle East, or being Israeli maybe she specifically means Israel, which, in 1989 as much as today, was the object of much political strife. Ofra Haza was a Yemenite Jew, so by her brothers she must have meant fellow Jews or fellow Yemenites, or more broadly, the people of the region as a whole. What the exact political situation was in those days, I don’t know, but it’s probably safe to say that most average folks just wanted a solution so they could live their lives in peace. And Ofra was absolutely correct in her complaint that nobody cares. Nobody cared then and nobody cares now. Nobody understands what’s going on or why, and nobody other than the directly affected will bother to find out or do anything at all.
This is a bit sad-making. Not least because Ofra Haza is no longer with us, of course, but mostly because not much has changed since she first sang so upliftingly about bringing unity to the Middle East. The Israeli-born singer used her music to represent her own background and Middle Eastern traditions across the cultural divide. She worked hard to be a cultural ambassador for the region, and musically at least, she was able to bring Hebrew, Muslim and Christian together. She certainly succeeded in bringing Middle Eastern music to the West. She was one of the first non-Western performers to achieve truly global popularity. Bringing diversity to pop music is a great achievement, and raising consciousness about political issues can be a big part of a popular star’s impact. But even the most inspiring songs fall short of the kind of power needed to make real political change. Ofra Haza was hoping for healing and unity, and did her best to promote those things, but it wasn’t enough, and today we still take it for granted that the Middle East is ten different kinds of screwed up, and go about our way. Ofra Haza wondered what to do about terrorism in 1989. If she were here today, she would be disappointed to still be wondering the same thing.
Do you ever get those annoying little notifications suggesting that if you like ‘x’ you’ll adore ‘y’? Those pop up on YouTube and Netflix all the time and they’re usually completely wrong, or sometimes magazines will do a feature in that format to promote something new, and it’ll be completely wrong. It’s really annoying and usually completely wrong, is what I’m saying. But sometimes it can be helpful, so I’m doing an ‘if, then’ now. If you love and miss Ofra Haza, you should check out Natacha Atlas. That might be a boneheadly obvious comparison to make – they are two of the best known Middle Eastern pop singers in the world, and I’m sure I’m not the first one to compare them. But still, there’s a clear line between them. Ofra Haza set the precedent for what Atlas has built her career on. Atlas makes music that is wildly diverse in its influences, yet remains steeped in Middle Eastern heritage. She draws on her Egyptian, Moroccan, Palestinian and Isreali background, her British and Belgian upbringing, and everything that’s going on in pop music right now, including hip-hop, dubstep, and electronica. This exotic yet modern style has become increasingly popular worldwide, and it was Ofra Haza who first popularized it in the 1980’s. She was the first person to become a global star by combining the very ancient with the very modern. Unfortunately, Ofra Haza died in 2000, so her output was cut short and she didn’t get to see her influence grow stronger and stronger. In an increasingly diverse marketplace, there’s an appetite for music that does not sound homogeneous but reflects a wide range of the artist’s background and interests. Hence we have the mainstream fame of artists like M.I.A. and Shakira, who mix and match old with new and aren’t afraid to let their heritage show. Natacha Atlas is one of the top figures on the world pop scene, and her music appeals to fans of traditional world music as well as EDM or pure pop. The success of musical ambassadors like Atlas is one of the most positive effects of globalization, and I suspect that pop music will continue to become an ever more diverse melting pot of far flung inspirations.
In the interests of maximum diversity, here’s Ofra Haza singing in Aramaic. Kaddish a traditional part of Jewish liturgy, a series of hymns praising God’s name. There are different variations for different purposes. I don’t know what Ofra Haza’s part is referring to, but since she dedicated it to victims of war, it must be something to do with mourning the dead. I’m sorry that I’m very much not familiar with Jewish spirituality, but that’s not really necessary to appreciate the beauty of Ofra Haza’s singing.
(Photo: Shabat Ha-Malka)
I have no idea what this is all about, because Hebrew. Or maybe not Hebrew but some other language I have zero grasp of. I’m too burned out from a very long vacation to think too hard about anything right now, but if you want your spirits lifted a bit, you could do worse than Israeli dancehall queen Ofra Haza.
The beautiful late Ofra Haza, who introduced the world to Middle Eastern music. Her music was exotic yet accessible. She knew how to combine the traditional and the modern. Her album Desert Wind came out in 1989 and still sounds fresh. It’s not instantly recognizable as something made in the 80’s, or any particular time. Because good music is timeless, of course, and also because she was all over the map with her influences. She drew on everything from religious chants to Western pop. She was on the cutting edge at a time when the West was starting to develop an interest in world music of all kinds, and she’s right in tune with the times right now. If she were alive today, she’d likely be making great club hits. She would probably see kindred spirits in global-pop stars like M.I.A. and Shakira, who add exotic sounds to their records like musical magpies. Ofra Haza has been a huge influence on the globalization of pop, and it’s tragic that she isn’t around to continue the evolution.