A composer of striking originality, given to rejecting schools, cliques, and fashions, Ohana pursued a distinguished career that is as hard to characterize as his nationality. His father had Andalusian heritage, but as the family had settled in Gibraltar, had British citizenship. Maurice was born in Morocco and brought up in Bayonne, France. He studied in Paris and Barcelona, joined the British Army in World War II and fought in Italy, staying behind to study composition with Casella. In 1947 he returned to Paris and founded a group called "Zodiaque," devoted to the ideal of artistic freedom, mainly freedom to reject the twelve-tone system that was then rapidly taking over European musical thought. His manifesto attacked serialism, "Parisian cliques," and avant-garde techniques. This made him a lifelong foe of the Pierre Boulez, the avant-garde serialist who led the dominant Parisian clique from that time and for the next half-century.
Ohana's music escapes the older Romantic tonal tradition by embracing the wildness and strange scales of Andalusian and Northern African music. His music calls for fluid, florid, almost bel canto singing and remarkably subtle new tone colorations (instrumental and vocal). He often seeks the stillness of Eastern-inspired meditation, but often uses hard-edged, Stravinskian rhythms. His music often has a sense of half-forgotten, archaic rituals. He used electronic music on occasion, and divided the octave into intervals smaller than the usual half-step. Among his most notable compositions were Syllabare pour Phèdre, Signes, Sibylle, Silenciare, Stream, Neumes, Promethée, and Llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias. (He was fond of the letter "S" in his titles because it is spelled with a reverse "sigma," the Greek letter representing summation or infinity.)