Ofra Haza's death on February 23, 2000, at the age of 41 deprived the world of a lovely woman, a great vocalist, and a fearless cultural advocate. Fifty Gates of Wisdom, her 1985 album of boldly reimagined traditional Yemenite songs, brought her international fame, and decades later, it retains its ability to delight and inspire. The set list consists of secular tunes plus examples of a festive devotional style called diwan, which is common to all Oriental Jewish communities and can be sung in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Arabic. Each group has specific traditions, but the Yemeni variant is especially remarkable for its poetry, much of which was written by rabbis as far back as the 17th century. Most diwan consist of three separate sections: the a cappella nashid (prelude), the shira (singing), during which celebrants bang on copper trays, empty gasoline cans, or whatever else is handy, and a postlude called the hallel, or song of praise. The unusual percussion accompaniment came into use following the destruction of the Temple, when Jews were forbidden to play conventional musical instruments, and also as a result of periodic oppression by Muslim fundamentalists. In Haza's hands, these sinuous tunes are further spiced up by drum machines and synthesizers, pumping out the hypnotic dance beats that catapulted the album onto dancefloors throughout the world. It important to remember that this recording long predated the flood of world/techno fusions that have since overwhelmed the marketplace. Transglobal Underground, Afro-Celt Sound System, and Scandinavian groups like Garmarna all owe Haza a debt of gratitude. But despite the historic electronic flourishes, it is the siren-like charm of the singer's voice that creates the most indelible impression.
AllMusic Review by Christina Roden