b. 9 September 1944, Palestine. Vocalist and composer Haza, an uncle of the vocalist Ofra Haza, is simultaneously a modernizer and preserver of tradition in the music of the Palestinians. He has also been the single most important figure on the local music scene for decades. Brought up for the first few years of his life in the country, his family moved to Jerusalem in 1950, where he remained until he left college, a qualified dentist, in 1966. He spent 1967 in neighbouring Lebanon, before returning to Jerusalem and starting to sing with local bands such as the Chart Toppers and Rubber Soul. As their names suggest, both bands were heavily influenced by imported rock music, and Haza acquired his early reputation for convincing cover versions of British and North American pop and R&B tracks. His first tentative step towards the musical revolution that he would take in the mid-70s occurred when he began to translate the lyrics of songs like ‘We Shall Overcome’ into Arabic - turning the well-known USA folk song into a track specifically focusing on the stateless Palestinian people.
In 1975, Haza left Rubber Soul, no longer prepared to devote his career to interpretations of overseas material. Forming the more traditionally orientated Camel Train, he started taking seriously his research into traditional Arabic, and in particular Palestinian, folk styles. The key instrument in practically all this music is the oud, resembling a European lute, but played in a much more percussive and rhythmic style. Haza, together with Camel Train’s lead guitarist Mahomet Majmoud, translated the oud’s complex patterns onto electric guitars, tightening the strings to produce an uncanny copy of the oud’s tonal quality. Later, Majmoud would drop the electric guitar altogether, in favour of an amplified oud. At the same time, Haza restructured the band’s drum style, changing it to fall in with traditional percussion rhythms and the clapping of the singers’ hands. At first, these innovations failed to make much impact on local club-goers and record buyers: many Palestinians felt their own music to be inferior to imported styles and found Camel Train’s championing of it, even through a filter of electric guitars and kit drums, embarrassing. Gradually, however, attitudes changed. As the political situation worsened, Haza’s lyrics - thinly disguised criticisms of Israeli and north American policies, incomprehensible to all but Arabic speakers - converged with newly emergent nationalist sentiments.
By 1975, via singles like ‘Jihad’ (a warning that war was on the way), Camel Train was no longer dismissed but seen as standard bearers of a renaissance of Palestinian culture and pride. By this time, the Israeli government had been alerted to the subversive nature of Haza’s material and, failing to persuade his record label to stop their releases, achieved the next best thing, which was to deny them airplay on government-funded radio (though they continued to be broadcast into Israel via Lebanese and Syrian stations).
At the end of 1981, Haza was jailed for six months on charges of subversion. He was not to be intimidated, however, and once free began releasing a string of singles that offered thinly disguised support to Palestinian nationalist politicians and their supporters throughout the Middle East. Israeli airtime continued to be denied, but the records became huge hits nonetheless - widely heard on programmes broadcast by radio stations in neighbouring Arab countries. Throughout the 80s, as Palestinian discontent grew stronger, Haza maintained the political orientation of his music, while steadfastly continuing to refuse to support acts of terrorism by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and similar bodies. His lyrics were essentially non-violent exhortations to the people to maintain their commitment to and struggle for a free Palestine. He continues to be hugely popular amongst Arab audiences throughout the Middle East.