Last Tuesday I went to a tribute concert for Roza Eskenazi at the Badminton Theater in Athens. Roza Eszkenazi was born to Sephardic Jewish parents as Sarah Skinazi in Constantinople sometime in the mid-1890s (the date is not certain). Her family emigrated to Salonica shortly after the turn of the century, at that time still a part of the Ottoman Empire. When she was still quite young (in her teens) she began her career as a singer, against the wishes of her parents. She was discovered by Panayiotis Toundas in the late 1920s while performing at a taverna and recorded her first song in 1928/9. Thereafter she became one of the most successful female singers on the Greek music scene. She performed with Toundas, Semsis, Tomboulis (an oud master) and many others (including most of the Piraeus greats). Eventually, by the mid-30s, she was one of the highest paid musician in Greece, and was also touring other parts of the eastern Mediterranean (Egypt, Serbia, e.g.). Her range was impressive. She sang not only Piraeus-based rebetika, but also Smyrneïka (including many amanedes, see below for one), and demotic folk music. She could perform in Greek, Turkish, Armenian, or Ladino, though she also composed a few songs, most notably To Kanarini (1934). She survived the Nazi occupation of Greece and continued to perform after the war. She toured in America and Turkey in the 50s and enjoyed a brief revival in popularity in the 70s, when rebetika enjoyed a resurgence during and after the Junta (1967-74). She died in 1980 and is buried in Stomio, in the Korinthia, which is about 30 minutes west of Xylokastro on the Korinthian Gulf. (a fuller bio here)
The concert and international tour complement the musical documentary film made by Roy Sher during 2009-10 (not yet available, but you can sign up to receive notice when it is). During the concert clips from this film played in the background—scenes from late Ottoman Constantinople, Salonica, Smyrna, and also some of Athens, but also an interview with Eskenazi in mid 70s. The concert itself was amazing. The group consisted of three singers: Yasmin Levy (Israel), Mehtap Demir (Turkey), and Martha Frintzila (Greece). Throughout the show, Demir and Frintzila exchanged verses in Greek and Turkish, while Levy sang a few songs solo in Ladino. Each had her own style. Demir sang some very haunting amanedes (gazeler in Turkish), while Frintzila brought several of Eskenazi’s most well known songs to life with her exuberant performance. The instrumentation was more Smyrneïka than Piraeus rebetika. Several (apparently) well known international musicians (from Greece and Turkey) played oud, kanoni, violin, guitar, clarinet, drums, and a bouzouki. The violinist was given the lead on many songs (while the bouzouki took the back seat, largely), while the kanoni player (who also played oud) performed several memorable taximia.
The theater was full of people of all ages—young, old and everything in between. And everyone knew the words. Even when Demir sang a song in Turkish, you could hear (and see) Greeks singing along in Greek. One of the more memorable moments of the evening took place when a Greek man walked up on stage to dance a zeimbekiko. At first, the theater techies put the spotlight on him and let him have his moment. But he didn’t leave, so they took the lights away and focused them on the singer (Frintzila). This was useless. He simply danced his way over to her and continued until the song ended. When a man needs to dance zeimbekiko, this is how it goes.
What really made this concert for me, though, was the multicultural approach (an express goal of the musicians). Although I’ve spent a lot of time listening to rebetiko since I moved to Greece last year, I’d never heard it like this live–never in Turkish, nor with such diverse (smyrneïka style) instrumentation (and, in fact, I’d never heard Ladino spoken before). It’s a perfect reflection of Roza’s life, her social background, and, in fact, the background of this entire style of music (rebetika and Smyrneïka), which is to be found in the multicultural late Ottoman world (though we should not downplay the local social roots of Piraeus-based rebetika).
But enough. Some of Roza’s music for you.
Eimai Prezakias, 1934 (I’m a junkie):
Το Καναρίνι, 1934 (My Sweet Canary):
Hariklaki (from the 70s interview):