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Flash Obituary, 2-29: The Importance of Being Ofra Haza
She Showed Me How to Dance

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

"Tell me why
Tell me why
Ya ba ye (Oh My G-d)....

The more I try to learn
The less I seem to know...

My mother says
My mother says
Ya ba ye Ya ba ye....

Don't run away
Ya ba ye
Ya ba ye
Don't run away."

--Ofra Haza, "Ya Ba Ye"

Last Wednesday had to be the worse day my body had suffered in a long time. I couldn't keep anything down. I had hemorrhoids. I felt faint. I thought--silly me--that it was because I was nervous about going to court to stop my landlord from harassing me. The landlord's nasty lawyer--almost a caricature of nastiness--had come THIS close to provoking me into taking the matter to trial. But at the last minute, a serenity came over me, and I agreed, peaceably and peacefully, to settle. As I walked out of the courtroom, I felt light as a feather. When I learned yesterday of the death that very day of Ofra Haza--the Yemenite Israeli singer who had put the fire into my dancing soul--I saw at once the explanation for both the sickness that depleted me at the start of that day, and the Heavenward tilt of my shoulders by dusk.

When people, particularly dancers, find out I write about dance, the first question they ask is, "Are you a dancer?" My answer: "Not that anyone would pay to see." What I mean: I have neither the training nor physical talent of a dancer, so I wouldn't presume to call myself a professional dancer, but I have the soul of a dancer. My love of going dancing is right up there with my love of watching dance as a reason I decided to devote my journalism to dance.

Dancing connects me to the highest feelings in life, on both the pain and pleasure ends of the spectrum. I discovered this in 1989, when I started going clubbing big-time. Initially, my impetus was to meet women. A friend had suggested this as a pro-active step I could take to lift myself out of the "Another Saturday Night and I Ain't Got Nobody" doldrums. In one whirlwind weekend that September, I hit a couple of clubs every night. My buddy Dean even labeled me the Kamikaze dancer, because I determined to ask every woman I liked to dance with me; whether she said yes was not the point. The objective was to put myself out there.

At about the same time, I started Djing myself. When Dean announced he was having a party for the cast of the television show he produced, I volunteered to make a mix tape for dancing.

I'm a bit of a control freak, so when, at the party, Dean's Israeli-born friend Daniel said that we had to listen to a tape he had made of a sensational Israeli singer, I initially was miffed; I was in charge of the music! But once I heard the first deep strains of her ethereal voice, I was hooked for life. Within a week, Ofra Haza was in constant rotation on my home turntable.

In the meantime, going dancing had become less about finding a woman then about finding myself. The clubbing that started as a soul-mate hunt evolved, within a year, into a soul-mining expedition with my own innermost heart as the destination. Aiding this search was my discovery of a club, the Kennel, where a DJ, Doug Wendt, played a kind of music that not only facilitated, but demanded such expeditions. The music was called world beat.

Doug held forth mostly on Sunday nights, developing a following--not just for himself, but for this music, which was of the heart and feet at the same time--that danced and listened with no concern that the next day was a Monday. If you've seen "Contact," or if you have a club you go to regularly, you know the group feeling that grows in such a circle. In this particular circle, we came to see what wonders Doug would reveal to us every week--not just on disc, but frequently to our eyes in the form of music videos from around the world. Doug is my DJ mentor not just because he turned me on to world music, but because he taught me the art of connecting this aural dream to gritty reality. The week of the Rodney King riots, he played Bob Marley's "Burning and Looting." When Nelson Mandela was released--I remember this vividly--we danced to the CNN tape of Mandela walking out of Victor Verster prison, which Doug played again and again. The evening, like most at the Kennel, was not just about partying, but celebrating--and sometimes bemoaning--the world in its beauty and ugliness. Doug provided the music; we the dance.

I would always show up at 9, as soon as the doors opened, and after a cursory exchange of greetings with Doug, would ask him to play Ofra, which he inevitably did at 'round midnight. By that time, I was dancing with my homies on the stage--centerstage, if I would wiggle in there--and on hearing Ofra and, usually, seeing her on the three large video screens, would raise my arms in tribute to her, thanks to Doug, and announcement that the dance of my life was about to begin.

Even though I was downstage center, I'd always close my eyes at this moment, so as not to be distracted by external influences. This was about me, with Ofra's guidance, burrowing into myself.

"My mother says
My mother says
Ya ba ye
Ya ba ye.

My mother says
My mother says
Don't run away
Don't run away."

Sharing this experience with my homies was not enough. I had to share it with the world. Since I was writing for a world news service, Reuters, at the time, this was pretty easy. I sold a story on the new phenomenon of world beat, and used the Kennel Club and Ofra as the nut. It was a great opportunity to interview Ofra, which I did, by phone.

I got to give a clipping of that story to Ofra a couple of years later, in 1992, when she performed in San Francisco. And a performance it was: Not just singing, but drumming also--on the petrol cans that were the only instrument allowed to the Jews in Yemen, where Ofra's parents hailed from. And, dancing.

Towards the end of the show, Ofra introduced the next number as a Yemenite Jewish wedding song. After her pop success, Ofra had made a roots album, 50 Gates of Wisdom, which included "Im Nin Alu," the song which, sampled by Erik B. and Rakim, introduced her to American audiences. But this album had other folk songs, including the wedding tune.

Ofra then invited the audience to join her on the stage. I had to, and I did. And I danced with Ofra, she holding my hand during this wedding song. It was a dream come true.

A year later, Ofra sent me an advanced tape copy of Kirya, a breakthrough, serious album produced by Don Was. It included a killer tune, "Daw Da Hiya," concerning a woman who is killed by her family for sleeping with the man she loves. The story is narrated by Iggy Pop. I brought the tape to the Kennel Club for Doug to play; he loved it, especially this cut, and shared it.

Finally I called Ofra, and--I so clearly remember her voice--when she heard it was me she said, "That's so funny, I was just thinking about you! I think we must have some kind of strange psychic connection."

Ofra's manager, Bezalel Aloni, would later tell me I knew more about her than he did.

In 1993, I sold Reuters a profile on Ofra. I would fly down to Los Angeles, where she was living, for the interview. I booked the flight. Bezalel said Ofra preferred to be interviewed in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria. The interview was to take place on Valentine's Day. I got her a present--some homemade chocolates. But at the last minute, I had a premonition about the plane crashing, and cancelled. I don't think Bezalel got the message, and Ofra ended up waiting in vain for me.

I thought of this last-minute missed opportunity, with a wrenching pain above my solar plexus, when I opened Time Monday and there, in the Milestones section, saw, "Died. Ofra Haza." I couldn't believe it. I thought I had misread it--maybe it really said, "Sick" or "Married" or "Given Birth." But no, there next to a colorful picture of her it stated, clear enough, "Died." I dropped the magazine like it was poison and, losing control of my face muscles and tear ducts, screamed, "No. No! NO!! It's not true, It's NOT true!"

I scoured the 'Net the rest of the afternoon, and pieced this together: Ofra walked into the hospital on about February 10, and was carried out in a casket on February 23. Her disease was not disclosed, by her wishes, but the illness was at first ascribed to a flu and/or pneumonia, and her death to massive organ failure. She was 42 years old. Her hospitalization was big news in Israel, where fans conducted a vigil outside the Tel Aviv hospital the entire time, their mood worsening as her condition deteriorated.

On Sunday, there was what amounted to a State funeral, with Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak presiding. Ofra was, in affect, an emissary for Israeli culture--its first bonafide "pop star," whatever that means. (In 1993, Ofra told me of her plans to record an album with the Israeli Philharmonic.)

Regret set in.What might have happened if I'd gone to Los Angeles, instead of giving in to my fear of flight?

And why did I allow us to lose touch? Why oh why do we take people for granted, and think there will always be time enough, that you can always find them again later? Later, later, later!

Ofra was more than a crush to me--and, I suspect, to others. Her voice, untempered by reason and untamed by mannerisms, was a direct line to the highest feelings in life, pain and pleasure. I danced to feel these, and Ofra opened the channels. I started dancing with the intention of meeting "Someone." Ofra led me to the anima in myself.

When I read the news today oh boy, I felt like a part of myself was gone forever.

Then I went to lunch at the Mexican Village, on MacDougal Street. In the bathroom, there was a sign: "Be careful if you write on the walls! The walls will be checked right after you leave the bathroom!"

Ofra wrote her music on the walls of my heart. Her voice fills and feels my bones. Its rhythms haunt and move my feet.

Just now, I took a break from writing this to check the lyrics of "Ya Ba Ye;" then found myself dancing. I couldn't stop; I put on record after record of Ofra songs, and the various dance mixes of "Galbi," "Ya Ba Ye," and others. I mixed in some of the other music I used to dance to at the Kennel--Cheb Khaled, More Kante, Gregory Isaacs. My spirit lifted again. I imagined myself dancing with Ofra, holding her hand again. Only this time, I wouldn't let go. I would hold it and keep it warm and alive forever. Then I thought: If it would bring her back, I would swear off dancing forever. But then I thought of a better solution: Ofra is probably doing her wedding dance even now, the bride of Heaven. By keeping on dancing myself, I can keep her spirit alive, make sure it always has at least one home on Earth--and let her bring me to the Gates of Wisdom every time I take the dance floor.

In Flash Review 3, 2-28: Over-40 Plentitude, my colleague Chris Dohse used the word amaranthine. My friend Ben M. looked it up for me later; according to Webster's, Amaranth is a flower that never fades. Amaranthine can mean undying.

Ofra is Hebrew for flower.

"Why do I cry at night?
Why do I feel so sad
Something holds me tight
It's something in the air

I have a prayer a prayer
A prayer from my heart
Night after night after daylight
Memories of home...."

---Ofra Haza, "Kaddish"

"Kaddish: A small prayer, holding all the world's sorrow on the wings of an angel."

--Ofra Haza, liner notes for "Kaddish."

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