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OFRA HAZA (Buy CDs by this artist)
Yemenite Songs (Globestyle) 1985
Fifty Gates of Wisdom (Shanachie) 1987
Shaday (Sire) 1988
Desert Wind (Sire/Warner Bros.) 1989

Whether or not music is indeed the universal language, the fact is that if you slap on a contemporary dance beat, people will buy just about anything, no matter how exotic its origins. Such is the case with Yemenite singer Ofra Haza, who funked up ancient Hebrew music and became the international darling of folks who would never bother to borrow an ethnic record from the public library.

After her sinuous singing was sampled by Coldcut onto a remix of Eric B. and Rakim's "Paid in Full" and from there onto M/A/R/R/S' "Pump Up the Volume" in 1987, Haza — a huge pop star at home in Israel — gave a rethink to three selections from her traditional-minded Yemenite Songs (issued in the US as Fifty Gates of Wisdom) and rocked them into the late 20th century on her next album. Bits of Shaday (mostly done with British producer Wally Brill) are intriguing blends of strange and familiar sounds (a bit reminiscent in approach to Monsoon), but most of the LP is horrible globopop disco (in English) that could almost be mistaken for Gloria Estefan.

With production by Arif Mardin and Thomas Dolby (as well as Haza and her longtime collaborator/manager, Bezalel Aloni), Haza settled down on Desert Wind, forging a subtler, more organic hybrid. Making a selfconscious effort to maintain a connection to her musical roots while reaching out for mainstream appeal, Haza locates a fascinating midpoint between the Middle East and the Midwest on "Ya Ba Ye," "I Want to Fly" and "Da'Asa"; elsewhere, she drops instrumental and vocal accents into otherwise characterless concoctions and, on two tracks, succumbs to Dolby's high-tech irrelevancy.

[Ira Robbins]