Israel bids farewell to icon, musical wonder Ofra Haza

"Shalom to you, our princess."

The words of Ofra Haza's niece, Doreen Haza, rang true to the thousands of Israelis who attended the musical icon's funeral last week.

Old and young, religious and secular, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, the people of all classes who attended had little in common except for the fact that they felt touched in some way by the singer.

Besides her music, the 41-year-old singer also has left behind countless unanswered questions about the circumstances that led to her death on Feb. 23.

On Monday, the Israei daily Ha'aretz quoted unnamed sources that she died of complications related to HIV infection.

Apparently on orders from Haza herself, the family has kept mum.

Born and raised in a Tel Aviv slum called Hatikva, Haza burst onto the world music scene in the 1980s.

Her colorful national dress and her exotic mixture of Middle Eastern ballads and rhythms blended with western styles helped to make her Israel's best-known female solo singer in the United States and Europe.

In 1992, Ofra's album "Kirya" was nominated for a Grammy Award for the best album in the World Beat category.

Considered a goodwill ambassador of Israeli ethnic music abroad, Haza performed at the 1994 ceremony in Oslo at which the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat.

Despite her successes, she never lost touch with her childhood neighborhood — when Haza married Doron Ashkenazi in 1997, she threw a wedding party there. The couple had no children.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak eulogized Haza before the Feb. 24 funeral as mourners gathered in the neighborhood where she grew up and where her parents still live. Barak recalled worrying about Haza 13 years ago, when she survived a plane crash.

"God brought her out of the fog, healthy and all in one piece, to touch more hearts around the world," he said. "This time, God didn't intervene and we lost her."

Quoting a couple of her top songs, Barak said that "as long as there is a child who has Ofra's 'The Prayer' and 'Am Yisrael Chai' ringing in his ears, Ofra is not dead — she is still with us."

Immediately after her death, deputy director-general Ze'ev Rothstein of Tel Hashomer's Sheba Hospital described how Haza's condition quickly deteriorated after she was admitted in mid-February.

Haza was sedated, admitted to the respiratory intensive care unit, attached to a dialysis machine because of kidney failure. Her condition declined seriously with signs of liver failure, fungal infection in the blood, and disruption of the blood-clotting mechanism.

Haza's heart stopped beating on Feb. 23, Rothstein said, because of an abnormal increase in hydrogen in the body, which occurs when carbohydrates are burned by the body without enough oxygen.

Despite any controversies surrounding her death, Haza's achievements will not be overshadowed.

She was an artist whose roots were the core of her music and her worldwide success. Raised as the youngest of nine children to a traditional Yemenite family, Haza's fairytale climb to fame and fortune has become the stuff of local legend.

At age of 12, she had her first taste of the stage when she joined the Hatikva Theater group. After serving two years in the army she recorded her first solo album and quickly rose to become one of the country's top singers. She was voted second in the 1983 Eurovision Song Contest with "Chai" and recorded 16 gold or platinum albums.

In 1985, Haza, released her first international album, "Yemenite Songs," a collection of interpretations of devotional poetry written by 17th-century rabbi, Shalom Shabazi. In 1988, Ofra appeared in the remix of "Paid in Full" in the "Colors" movie soundtrack.

Not long after, Ofra's song "Im Nin Alu" reached No. 1 in the German charts for nine straight weeks and No. 1 in the Euro charts for two weeks, making her an international name.

Her next album, "Shaday," continued her international success, selling over 1 million copies worldwide and receiving the New Music Award for the International Album of the Year in 1989.

Haza continued to appear in many projects in recent years, including the "Prince of Egypt" and "The Governess" soundtracks, both in 1998.