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Roza sings the blues 5 novembre 2014

Posted by Acturca in Art-Culture, History / Histoire, Istanbul, South East Europe / Europe du Sud-Est, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Guardian – G2 (UK) Wednesday, November 5, 2014, p. 18

Laura Barton

She danced, she sang, she hid resistance fighters – and her music ended up in Pulp Fiction. Laura Barton celebrates the rediscovery of Roza Eskenazi, the Greek firebrand who united an underclass.

It’s a short song, but rich and intriguing. « My sweet canary, » it begins. « You took my mind./ In the morning you wake me/ When you sing so sweetly. » Although it’s sung in Greek, you get the drift even without a translation: there’s something hard and yearning in the voice of its singer, Roza Eskenazi, a mingling of desire, infatuation and pain.

Eskenazi was the queen of rembetika, the Greek blues, a genre that sprang up in the Aegean’s port towns in the 1920s. She was a prodigious and prolific talent, revered for her soul and her charisma, as well as for giving a voice to the underclass. Yet until now, her music and the extraordinary details of her life have remained relatively unknown. This month, however, Eskenazi will be celebrated – in a new album that pays tribute to her music, and in a documentary film, My Sweet Canary, that tells the story of a life and a career that encompassed two world wars, an elopement, a long-lost son, German occupation, imprisonment, and of course extraordinary music.

« The thing that struck me was the lack of any information about her, » says Martha D Lewis, the British-born Cypriot composer who this week releases Homage to Roza, a collection of reworked versions of Eskenazi songs. « It’s like the work of Billie Holiday going by undocumented. »

Eskenazi was born Sarah Skinazi in Constantinople, probably in the 1890s. Although her family would not sanction a career as a performer, she was rebellious enough to become first a dancer then a singer, and elope in her teens with a much older man. In the late 1920s, she was singing in a club when famed rembetika composer and record label boss Panagiotis Toundas happened to hear her. He convinced her, in the autumn of 1929, to make her first recordings – not only ensuring Eskenazi’s own fame but propelling rembetika into the mainstream.

Eskenazi recorded about 500 songs in the following decade, becoming one of several Greek artists – and the first woman – to be flown to the US to record for Columbia. She sang in Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Arabic, Yiddish, Ladino and Italian, writing her own compositions, too. Misirlou, one of her songs from this time, would appear on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

During the German occupation, Eskenazi ran a nightclub in Athens where, despite her Jewish heritage, she managed to escape deportation thanks to a fake baptism certificate and an affair with a German officer. She hid resistance fighters in her home and saved the lives of many Jews – including her own family – until she was finally exposed in 1943. She spent three months in prison before being released, thanks to campaigning by her German lover and her son.

Although her career then waned, her music enjoyed a revival in the 1970s, with TV shows and live performances, leading to her final concert in 1977. She died three years later, living out her final days in the company of her long-term companion, a police officer 30 years her junior.

Eskenazi’s songs have been a constant throughout Lewis’s life. The musician grew up in the Greek-Cypriot community in London. « We would go to weddings and christenings almost every single weekend, » she says, « and we would hear these songs. My parents would sing along, like they were in a football stadium – from their hearts. »

In 2008, the director Roy Sher began making a documentary about Eskenazi and asked Lewis to be involved. « The idea was to make a road movie, » Lewis explains. « He wanted to get a Greek, a Turk and a Jew involved in telling Roza’s story, to find places in their countries still playing her music. I was the Greek. »

They visited the Greek community in Jerusalem, then went on to Istanbul, Thessalonica, Athens and Piraeus. « What was interesting, » says Lewis, « was that the people in Turkey think the songs are theirs, as do the people in Jerusalem and Greece. But what the film dares to say is that they belong to all of us. In fact, what makes these songs is the fusion of those three cultures. »

At one point, Lewis found herself on stage singing Eskenazi songs with 12 other musicians, of Israeli, Greek and Turkish heritage. « We were singing in different languages, » she says. « Roza used to say she was nationality-less, because she embodied so many different cultures. And there we all were, in a loving and peaceful environment, playing her songs together. »

The UK premiere of My Sweet Canary is at Cineworld, London EN1, tomorrow at 8pm. Homage to Roza will be launched at the London jazz festival on 23 November.


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