The photo on the back jacket of the album Yemenite Songs depicts the artist Ofra Haza dressed in traditional Yemenite wedding garb. Masking her eyes is a pair of black, Hollywood--style sunglasses. The photograph is a telling one; Haza is, after all, part traditional Yemenite vocalist, and part international pop star.
After releasing several albums in her native Israel, Haza produced Yemenite Songs, an album in which Haza explores her Yemenite roots. Taking songs from the Yemenite Diwan--a collection of devotional songs sung in the home during the Jewish Sabbath and celebrations such as weddings, holidays, and circumcisions--Haza reinterprets them in a Western pop tradition. While maintaining the basic melodies and rhythms of the ancient songs, Haza amplifies their sound by adding western instrumentation and, in several of her songs, full electronic percussion. The result is a collection of songs that maintain the integrity of their venerable heritage while bringing them into the sphere of world music, where they can be more widely appreciated.
It is difficult to imagine Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, the 17th century rabbi/poet who wrote many of the songs of the Yemenite Diwan, contemplating the lyrics of his poetry being blasted in a Berlin nightclub. Haza's immense talent, however, has made such a strange union possible. According to her Web site, the title track of Yemenite Songs, "Im Nin Alu" spent nine weeks at the top of German pop charts and two weeks as the number one song in Europe.
"Im Nin Alu," according to the jacket of a collection of traditional Yemenite--Jewish music, can be sung in at least two different melodies. One version is slow--paced and more monotonous in tone. Another version is faster--paced and more rhythmic. Haza, in her interpretation, follows the second version, though her take is even faster still. Moreover, while Yemenite--Jewish music was generally accompanied only by petrol cans and tin trays (musical instruments were denied to Jews by ruling orthodox Muslims in Yemen), Haza adds elements of modern orchestration to the song, using instruments from the French horn to the double bass. Finally, Haza has transported the songs of the Diwan from the Yemenites' simple living rooms (where the music is generally performed) to a high--tech recording studio, and its sound reflects this. If the aim of the traditional songs of the Diwan is to mark celebration, to allow one's voice to let itself go with the emotion of the music rather than to sing precise notes, Haza's "Im Nin Alu"--and indeed all the songs on Yemenite Songs--is definitely a tightly controlled performance.
Yet, for all the changes made to the music, Haza's sound remains unmistakably Yemenite. The quality of her voice, her use of microtones, is unmistakably Middle Eastern. The western instrumentation never overpowers her voice, it serves only to bolster and complement it. In fact, it is the tin and timbala, the traditional Yemenite percussion, that stands out most in her music. Haza's interpretations, therefore, seem largely appropriate. The melodies of the songs of the Diwan were passed on orally; only the text of the poems were recorded. Consequently, the music must have changed over time, varying among the different groups of Yemenite Jews; the Yemenite Jews of Sana'a have different melodies than the Yemenite Jews of Aden, for example. Instrumentation (except for percussion) had been precluded because of the restriction of the Muslim theocracy in Yemen. It makes sense, therefore, that the Yemenite Jews, no longer constrained by such regulations, have reintroduced instrumental accompaniment.
Moreover, there is something fitting about Haza refashioning her music into pop dance hits--the songs of the Diwan were often accompanied by dance as they were songs of celebration, especially of weddings. Finally, Haza was born not in Yemen, but in Israel, a country whose very essence straddles East and West, ancient and modern. It is entirely apt then that Haza's music reflects this tension.
All this is not to say that Haza does not fall prey to the temptations of commercialism. In two of her later albums, Desert Wind (1989) and Kirya (1992), Haza performs many of her songs in a heavily--accented English, a misguided attempt to reach a broader audience. Her lyrics, having a strong mystical element when sung in languages--Hebrew, Aramaic, and the Yemenite--Jewish dialect--that are not widely understood in the Western world, are clumsy and trite in English; in "Fatamorgana" from Desert Wind, she sings, "She is looking far far away,/ It seems there's no escape/ From a prison without bars/ Only to follow the bright star." What Haza seems not to have understood is that the power of her voice, with its richness and earthy quality, needs no translation--it conveys quite clearly its emotions of passion, urgency and joy.
Last Updated: 11/15/12