1923 – 2006
Shoshana Damari was born in 1923 in the city of Dhamar, Yemen. With the outbreak of anti-Jewish persecution in Yemen in 1924, the family set out on foot for the Land of Israel. Reaching the port of Aden, they continued by ship to Palestine and settled in Rishon le-Zion, where Damari’s father found work as a teacher at a local talmud Torah.
Damari’s talents as a singer and actress came to light at an early age. She played drums and sang accompaniment for her mother, a singer and professional mourner who performed primarily at family celebrations and at gatherings of the Yemenite community in Palestine. “At that time, I sang the songs of Yemen that I had learned from my father, a ‘mori’ [a Yemenite Torah teacher], and especially from my mother, who was blessed with a clear, sweet voice. She would have me accompany her whenever she sang at Yemenite weddings and other celebrations,” Damari recounted.
Damari’s family objected to her desire to become an actress but her brother Sa’adya Damari, already a well-known actor, encouraged and supported her aspirations. He asked the then-director of the Shulamit acting studio, Shlomo Bashari-Bosmi, to accept her as a member of the troupe. Bosmi was highly impressed by her acting talent. At the time, she still dreamed of being an actress, but it quickly became clear that, in addition to her acting skills, she was also graced with a warm, husky voice and great musical talent.
Her first public appearance as a singer, at the age of thirteen, was followed by many others. At the age of fourteen, Damari appeared for the first time on stage as part of her studies, and a year later was already singing on various programs broadcast by Kol Yerushalayim, where she made her first radio appearance. She gave her first solo concert performance (in Tel Aviv) when she was only seventeen.
At the age of sixteen, Damari married Shlomo Bosmi, who also became her manager. For the next four years, she appeared on various stages. In 1944, when the satirical theater troupe Li La Lo was established, the founding director, Moshe Valin, invited her to join its ranks. By the time the troupe’s second revue, entitled “Interview with Li La Lo,” debuted in January 1945, Damari was already clearly a star. Most of the lyrics for the show were written by Nathan Alterman and set to music by Moshe Wilensky. Among the songs on the program was “Kalaniyot” (Poppies), which met with astounding success and became Damari’s signature tune; throughout her lengthy career, it was the song most closely identified with her. At the time, the song was also thought to have political undertones, given the situation in Palestine during the struggle to establish the State of Israel. Sometime during 1945, the Sixth Airborne Division, whose soldiers wore the customary red beret of the paratrooper, arrived in Israel. One evening, British soldiers surrounded the Li La Lo Theater and halted the performance on suspicion that the song “Kalaniyot” was directed against the British paratroopers and the Mandatory government.
Over the course of a year, the troupe mounted four additional revues, with words by Nathan Alterman set to melodies by Moshe Wilensky. Among the songs that turned into instant hits were “Be-Heder ha-Bubot,” “Ani mi-Zefat,” “Zeh Ya’avor,” “Be-Kharmei Teiman,” “Shulamit,” and others. As a result of the Li La Lo shows, Damari’s picture appeared in the papers and she received glowing reviews; mention was made not only of her unique voice but also of her stage presence and her “highly expressive hand and finger movements.” In a troupe made up predominantly of Jews of European origin, Damari stood out for her graceful Yemenite style and the quality of her singing; moreover, the success of her songs helped fill the theater’s coffers. Moshe Wilensky, who recognized the distinctiveness of her voice, composed songs with her in mind that allowed her to perform trills and highlighted her Yemenite origins. Accordingly, one can find in these and other songs a blending of East and West. But it was not only Alterman’s and Wilensky’s songs that Damari turned into hits. “Laylah Laylah” (Alterman-Ze’ira), “Shnei Shoshanim” (Orland-Ze’ira) and “Bat Sheva” (Hefer-Wilensky) are only a few of the songs made famous through her performances.
Following the declaration of the State of Israel, Damari appeared, accompanied by Wilensky, at the detention camps in Cyprus, moving her audiences to tears with her rendition of “Habaytah” by Ashman and Admon and “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” by Goldfaden, which she sang in Yiddish.
In the early 1950s, Wilensky broadcast a series of programs on Kol Yisrael called “Pizmon ve-Zemer”; for each program, he would compose a new song, performed by Damari. Among the songs introduced to the public in this way were “Mishlat Azuv,” “Ha-Ro’ah ha-Ketanah mi-ha-Gai” and “Le-Or ha-Zikhronot.” During those years Damari also debuted such songs as “Kitah Almonit,” “Shir Eres Negbi,” “Horah Mamterah,” “Rahel, Rahel” and other songs written by Yehiel Mohar and Moshe Wilensky for the Israel army’s Nahal entertainment troupe. Her performances and, later, her recordings, made these songs into hits.
In 1955 Damari appeared in the film Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer. A year later she sang and acted in Nuri Haviv’s film Be-Ein Moledet, which portrayed the Damari family’s aliyah from Yemen to Palestine (in the United States, it was screened under the name Hatikvah). The first Israeli movie to be filmed in color, it featured Damari singing “Ve-Shavu Banim Li-Gevulam” and “Bi-Fe’at ha-Kefar.”
In 1957 two versions of Goldfaden’s musical production Shulamit were mounted simultaneously—one at the Ohel Theater and the other at the Do Re Mi Theater. Damari starred in the latter, with Moshe Wilensky rewriting all the songs. The reviews and comparisons written at the time were unanimous in stating that Damari’s performance made this version the more successful of the two. The Do Re Mi production also popularized “Dodi Yavo min he-Harim” and “Anahnu ha-Ro’im.”
During the 1950s, but primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, Damari performed throughout the United States and around the world: in France, England, South Africa, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, Canada, Scandinavia and Japan. She was warmly embraced by audiences in her many appearances at national and international festivals in Israel and abroad, serving as Israel’s unofficial cultural ambassador and earning the title of “First lady of Israeli song.”
For over forty years Damari reigned supreme on the Israeli music scene. The finest lyricists and composers wrote for her. At national song festivals she was crowned the outstanding singer of her generation. Cities and villages, moshavim and kibbutzim held evenings of appreciation in her honor. Hers was a familiar presence at state occasions, alongside presidents and heads of state.
In her performances and recordings Damari spanned a range of genres, including patriotic songs (known in Hebrew as “songs of the homeland”), shepherds’ songs, holiday songs, love songs, children’s songs, Yemenite songs and songs in English and Yiddish. She recorded over one thousand songs and dozens of albums. Over the years she was the recipient of numerous titles and awards; outstanding among these was the Israel Prize, awarded to her on Independence Day 1988. In honor of the occasion, the song “Agilei Damar” was composed for her and sung by Yardena Arazi at the award ceremony. The judges’ citation reads, in part: “Shoshana Damari, a daughter of Yemen, has been a part of our history since the days of the state-in-the-making. From an early age …, she won fame as a patriotic singer, earning the status of royalty. … Aided by creators of music …, Shoshana Damari has succeeded in blending East and West, the traditional and the modern, with her warm, deep voice and her dramatic, lyrical personality … For this reason, she is awarded the Israel Prize for Hebrew Song for the year 5748/1988.”
Survived by a daughter named Nava, Damari died of pneumonia in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2006. Her death evoked numerous eulogies by public figures, including acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Moshe Katzav, who referred to her as the symbol of an entire era of Israeli culture. Thousands of mourners, many of them bearing bunches of the kalanyot (poppies, or anemones) which recalled her signature tune, accompanied her to her final resting place in Tel Aviv’s old cemetery on Trumpeldor Street.