She recorded over 500 songs in her time and was the first Greek female singer to be flown to the United States to record for Columbia. One of her songs would even appear on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic Pulp Fiction and still today, many of her songs are repeatedly performed on CDs and in nightclubs by Greece’s top songs.
Yet, Roza Eskenazi was buried in an unmarked grave in a tiny village where she spent the last years of her life and most young aficionados of Greek music today have probably never heard of her. But they certainly know her songs.
Her due as one of Greece’s greatest and most influential singers came this week when a documentary paying tribute to her life, and international legacy, was premiered in London— and will follow with a week of screenings at the Cineworld Theaters.
The film is called My Sweet Canary and tracks the life of the singer via the journey of a group of musicians who travel to Greece, Israel and Turkey, exploring the locations and cultures that impacted the legendary Eskenazi’s career.
Roza Eskenazi was born Sarah Skinazi in Constantinople to a rag dealer father and a mother who worked odd jobs, including housekeeping. The Greek Jewish family eventually relocated to Thessaloniki, which was still part of the Ottoman Empire and under a heavy Turkish influence, culturally. This impacted Roza growing up and would eventually influence her music, as would her dual Greek and Jewish heritage.
Her family refused Roza’s desire to be an entertainer. She rebelled and became a dancer, first— then a singer. In her teens, she ran off with a man much older than her and eloped while simultaneously pursuing her passion of singing.
She changed her name to Roza Eskenazi on the stage and got her big break in the late 1920s while singing in a nightclub and was “discovered” by famed composer and record label boss Panagiotis Toundas. He signed her to her first record deal in late 1929, leading Eskenazi to immediate success, not only ensuring Eskenazi’s own fame but propelling a genre called “rembetika” into the Greek mainstream.
She sang in seven languages— Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Arabic, Yiddish, Ladino and Italian, writing her own compositions, too, including My Sweet Canary, or Καναρίνι μου γλυκό, one of the most popular and reproduced Greek songs of all time, which she released in both Greek and Turkish at the time.
She quickly became known as the queen of Rembetika— the seedy, drug-ridden music of Greece’s poor and desperate underclass— a sort of Greek blues, which would ultimately become the foundation of all popular Greek music that we hear today.
Many of her songs were controversial, touching the very soul of the newly arrived refugee immigrants that were kicked out of Asia Minor who had settled in Aegean island coastal towns. Several dealt with drug abuse and addiction— including Πρέζα όταν Πιείς (“When You Take Heroin”), which was banned by Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas.
Her fame spread throughout the Greek world, including throughout the immigrant communities in the United States, where she would perform several times throughout the 1950s.
She became embroiled in the history of the era she lived in and was represented by the nation she sang for and the cultures that defined her— Greek, Jewish and Ottoman Turkish.
During the Nazi occupation, Eskenazi ran a nightclub in Athens. Despite her Jewish heritage, she managed to escape deportation thanks to a fake baptism certificate procured via the Greek Orthodox Archbishop and police chief who were working in collusion to save the city’s Jews.
It was also well-known and controversial at the time that Eskenazi had a public affair with a German officer.
But Roza Eskenazi was hardly a traitor or even a collaborator. She hid resistance fighters and British agents 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. She spent the rest of the war in hiding, fearful that she might be arrested again.
In 2008, the director Roy Sher began making a documentary about Eskenazi’s life and music. He enlisted the support of Martha D Lewis, a British-born Cypriot composer who this week released Homage to Roza, her very own rendition to Roza Eskenazi’s classic songs in a remastered, jazz approach.
Sher got a Greek (Lewis), a Turk and a Jew to tell Roza’s story through the journey and through song, traveling to countries whose cultures impacted Roza’s career, and coincidentally, where her songs are still being sung.
They visited the Greek community in Jerusalem, then went on to Istanbul, Thessaloniki, Athens and Piraeus. “What was interesting,” Lewis told The Guardian in an interview, “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.”
*We will follow the film and inform our readers when the DVD is available in the United States. Currently, a UK/European DVD is only available that will not play in standard North American DVD players that have zone restrictions on them.