Ofra Haza: the making of world music’s first international star

In January 1985, I had arrived in Israel to work as a DJ on a radio station, but this was no ordinary radio. The studios of ‘The Voice of Peace’ were on a ship anchored permanently in the Mediterranean Sea.

Aware of my interest in cutting edge music, the station’s popular breakfast DJ Dave Asher (who had been living in Israel for some time) played me a recent 12-inch single by a young Israeli singer of Yemeni origin named Ofra Haza. It was a traditional Yemeni song, re-mixed and cut up into a state-of-the-art club tune that sounded to me like a new, exciting ‘Middle East meets West’ genre. I wanted to find out more, but the terrible winter storms and shortage of staff meant that I was stuck working on the ship for the next three months.

Eventually, during my first shore leave, I visited the Tel Aviv office of the small independent record company, Hed Arzi, that had produced the Ofra Haza single. They were baffled that a British DJ would be so interested in one of their worst selling record releases, and particularly one that seemed to have such minimal mainstream potential. They humoured me and let me sit at a desk in their office, penning handwritten letters to radio DJs and record labels that I knew back in the UK, sent by airmail along with the single and related album ‘Yemenite Songs’.

Within a month, I had received replies from John Peel at Radio One and Charlie Gillett at Capital Radio, both saying that they had played Ofra’s record on their shows and had received enquiries asking where the record could be purchased. During my next shore leave, I returned to Hed Arzi, whose staff were amazed that their song had been played on national radio in the UK. They introduced me to Ofra and her manager for the first time. I wrote again to several UK record companies and one of them, Globestyle, was convinced sufficiently by the airplay to release both the single and the album.

I returned to the UK at the end of 1985 and spent the next two years trying to convince everyone I knew of Ofra’s talent. By 1987, I had given away so many copies of her records to music industry people that the UK record company said I would be given one last free box. By chance, I had recently been invited to attend a monthly staff meeting of London pirate station Kiss FM (at the London School of Economics) and, as a last resort, I distributed copies of Ofra’s records from this last box to some of the station’s DJs.

Kiss FM DJs Jonathan More and Matt Black, recording together as ‘Coldcut’, had already enjoyed underground success with some highly original cut-up singles on their Ahead Of Our Time label. They liked the Ofra Haza songs so much that they cut up one of them into their homemade remix of US rappers Eric B & Rakim’s latest single ‘Paid In Full’. Island Records in the UK released this remix without seeking Eric B’s prior approval, and without clearing the Ofra Haza sample. By the end of 1987, the single had reached number 15 in the chart, giving Eric B his first British hit and earning significant royalties for the Israeli record company because a third of the track featured Ofra’s voice.

More than anything, the chart success of that Eric B remix stimulated huge public interest in Ofra Haza’s voice beyond the narrow market for ‘world music’ (which had just been marketed as a new genre). In early 1988, I organised interviews for a promotional visit to the UK, shepherding Ofra Haza and her manager to Radio 1, the World Service and commercial radio stations. The UK record company re-issued Ofra’s ‘Im Nin Alu’ single, which quickly garnered radio airplay this time, despite it being sung in a strange, foreign language. However, the public demand for the single was so great that the independent label had difficulty fulfilling orders, so it licensed the track to Warner Brothers. After an initial meeting with the major label, my direct involvement with Ofra Haza ended abruptly, just as she was invited back to the UK to perform on ‘Top Of The Pops.’

After the success of this single internationally, the Israeli record label invited me to London’s Sarm Studios, where the follow-up single was being mixed. It was evident that none of the Warner Brothers personnel involved had any understanding of the unique charm of Ofra’s Yemeni music in the international marketplace. Ofra’s manager was far too keen to turn her into a mainstream pop singer, which is exactly how the public perceived her in Israel. As a result, the follow-up single bombed and, sadly, it seemed as if Ofra was consigned to be a one-hit wonder as a result of poor career guidance.

In 2000, I was shocked to learn of Ofra’s death at the age of 42 from AIDS-related organ failure. Two years later, an Israeli television film crew came to London and filmed an interview about my role in creating their country’s most successful international pop star. They had just filmed a similar interview with John Peel at his home, during which he impressed them by producing the handwritten letter that had accompanied the Ofra records I had initially sent him from Israel seventeen years earlier. The interviewer asked me if I had made a fortune from ‘discovering’ Ofra Haza for the international market. All I had received was one cheque for £200 from the UK record company in 1988 to reimburse my expenses for Ofra’s first London promotional visit.

Ofra’s incredible voice lives on through the music she recorded, although I am always reminded of the parts of her life that had been unbelievably tragic. The crucial roles of the late John Peel and Charlie Gillett in her international success should not be forgotten. Ofra Haza’s music arrived in the Western world at a time when the public welcomed sounds that challenged their expectations. We are musically much the poorer for the loss of Ofra, and of John and Charlie, from our world.

‘The Israeli Madonna’
Thursday 30 December 2010
BBC Radio 4