Roza Eshkenazy was a cafe singer and prolific recording artist in the 1930’s. Known as the Queen of Rebetiko, her long career continued through the 1970’s. She died in December, 1980 in her mid 80’s, confused by Alzheimer disease. Her music continues even today to influence and inspire Israeli, Greek, and Turkish artists.
Born in the late 1890’s to Sephardi Jewish parents, she grew up near Thessaloniki. She survived World War II with a forged baptismal certificate and a love affair with a German officer. After the war she toured frequently in the USA and even considered living there. However, the love of her life remained in Greece. By the late 1950’s she had returned to Greece where she lived until the end of her life.
Rebetiko, or “Greek blues”, is the name given to urban-Greek folk music and Ottoman cafe music based on Turkish modes and traditional Greek and Anatolian dance rhythms. Lyrics discussed themes of urban life and hardship, including the urban drug culture. It is accompanied by traditional stringed instruments, finger cymbals, and sometimes an accordion or hammered dulcimer like instrument.
Her life and the Jewish-Turkish milieu in which she lived was memorialized in a documentary, “My Sweet Canary”, by Haifa born director Roy Sher. The documentary looked at the relationship between Jews and Turks both today and in the 1930’s and 1940’s when Roza was at her professional peak. Speaking with HaAretz Sher says,
The movie has two intertwining axes: one is Eskenazy’s life story, from her birth in Istanbul in the late 19th century to her death in 1980. The second axis concerns the story of three musicians: a Turkish woman, a Greek woman and an Israeli man, who set out on a musical quest in Roza’s footsteps that takes them to the rebetiko clubs of Istanbul, Thessaloniki, Athens and Piraeus.
The work on the documentary also lead to the creation of a 10 person concert ensemble singing revival versions of Roza Eshkenazy’s classic songs. The musicians come from Greece, Turkey, Israel and the UK. Songs are in Greek, Turkish, and Ladino and have been touring Europe and the USA for the paat year.