One of Israel’s greatest cultural icons, one of our Queens of Song, Yaffa Yarkoni has died at the age of 86.
She was known as the singer of the wars, a sobriquet that she detested, but when Yaffa Yarkoni, Israel’s queen of song who delighted generations of children, soldiers and civilian adult audiences died on Sunday only a week after her 86th birthday, she was remembered more for fading out of the limelight.
In recent years, Yarkoni suffered from Alzheimers, a fact which her family made public, perhaps to explain the reason that she no longer appeared on stage. Yarkoni was the kind of trouper who would have continued singing till her last breath, had she been able to do so. There was no point in pretending that she had gracefully retired, because retirement was not her style. She was a vibrant personality who simply loved to give of herself whether singing to small children whom she adored, or whether asking adults in a crowded concert hall to join her in a sing along of some of the nation’s most nostalgic melodies.
After several years of study, Yaffa earned a place for herself in the dance company of the Palestine Opera where she remained for several years. When she wasn’t performing on stage, she was entertaining the patrons of Tslil. It was there that she met Yosef Gustin. They fell in love and married in September, 1944, when Yaffa was only 18 years old. Yosef Gustin served with the Jewish Brigade in the British Army and was sent to Italy where he was killed a month before the end of the Second World War in one of the last battles of the region between the allied forces and the Nazi troops..
Meanwhile Yaffa had joined the Hagannah and after the Declaration of Independence served in the Givati Brigade. During the War of Independence, she initially served as a wireless operator, and when things were quiet, the soldiers asked her to sing. This led to her being co-opted into an army entertainment troupe. She sang love songs to the soldiers to the tango tunes that were so popular in those days. She was an Israeli version of a blues singer, but with the passage of time decided that her favorite songs were ballads.
While she was still in the army, Shaike Yarkoni entered her life. A romance developed and they were married in 1948. Two years later, Yaffa gave birth to Orit, the first of their three daughters. Tamar arrived on the scene three years later, and Ruth, the last of the three in 1956.
Yaffa’s first record, Green Eyes in which she accompanied herself on the piano, was recorded when she still went by the name of Yaffa Gustin. It became an instant hit.
From that single 78, Yaffa’s career soared. The recently formed Hed Artzi recording company signed her up and produced numerous recordings of her singing songs, which to this day remain firm favorites at community singing events all over the country. Among them are Bab el Wad, Hen Efshar, Hayu Zmanim, and Ha’amini Yo Yavo.
She recorded not only in Israel, but also in the United States and was the first Israeli artist to record for Columbia Records. When an American radio interviewer was amazed at the number of languages in which sang, her response was “You can sing in any language without knowing the language.” She said at the time that she was in the process of making a record in Yiddish, a language which she did not speak. She also recorded a jazz album with Dizzy Gillespie.
Read the whole article. It has lots of fascinating detail about Yaffa’s early life, certainly stuff that I never knew.
For those who do not know Yaffa Yarkoni’s music and her beautiful husky voice, here are a couple of videos for your enjoyment.
This is probably her most famous song: Bab el-Wad (Gateway to the valley) – a ballad in honour of all those brave soldiers who gave their lives in the vicious battle for Jerusalem in 1948.
And here is Yaffa Yarkoni singing Daber elai bifrachim (Speak to me with flowers)
יהי זכרה ברוך