Ahuva Ozeri, a force in early Israeli music who was born in Yemen and raised in Tel Aviv’s Yemenite Quarter, died Tuesday from cancer of the vocal chords. She was 68.
Considered a pioneer of Israeli music who collaborated with a wide-ranging group of contemporary Israeli singers in the last decade, Ozeri lost full use of her vocal chords in 2000, when she was diagnosed with cancer.
Yet she produced one of her most celebrated albums, “Maalei Demama,” (“Out of Silence”), in 2013, with 16 songs written by Ozeri and sung by a wide variety of Israeli artists, from rockers Berry Sakharov and Corin Allal to crooners Ehud Banai and Chava Alberstein.
Shai Tsabari, who melds traditional Mizrahi music with rock, pop and world music sounds, was then one of the lesser-known musicians featured in the album, but he homed in on Ozeri’s sound and role in Israeli music.
He wrote in the album’s notes that Ozeri’s voice is “a profound, primeval root that is pure emotion, [with sounds that are] Yemenite, Indian and African, but also an integral part of Tel Aviv and the local neighborhood. Something that is timeless.”
Ozeri was born in Yemen and raised in Tel Aviv’s famed Yemenite Quarter, where she was the youngest of eight. Her father died when she was four years old, and she has said that she was already helping arrange memorial ceremonies and sing at local events in the neighborhood when she was just a child.
She was introduced at 15 by the drummer for Indian singer Ravi Shenkar to the Bulbul tarang, an Indian string instrument that evokes a somewhat primeval, ancient sound that became reminiscent of Ozeri’s music.
Ozeri said in numerous interviews that she fell in love with the instrument, whose sound has a soul.
“In a certain way, its sound is my voice,” she told NRG in 2013. “This instrument makes people cry, it makes people go crazy.”
Her first original album, “Where is the Soldier?” came out in 1975, and was the first of 20 original albums over the course of her career. It delved into the mourning following the 1973 Yom Kippur War and brought bereaved mothers to Ozeri’s door, asking her to compose songs in their fallen sons’ memories.
That wasn’t the direction she wanted to take, and she slowly moved toward developing her own, more modern sound.
The 1970s were peak years for Ozeri, as she reportedly became the first Mizrahi woman singer to perform live on television, and produced five albums.
When she was diagnosed with cancer in 2000, she didn’t allow the loss of her voice to stop her creative process. She always appeared in public with choker necklaces, adorned by large pendants covering the base of her throat, where she had undergone vocal chord surgery.
She produced six more original albums before her final work in 2013, including working with Hadag Nachash on the popular 2008 “Sticker Song,” where she played on the Bulbul tarang, offering her own singular opening to the song about a generation looking to end racism and hatred.