Thursday, 9 June 2011

My Sweet Canary - Remembering Roza Eskinazi

Let’s have a break from writing!

This spring sees the release of ‘My Sweet Canary,’ a documentary of the life of the singer Roza Eskinazi. Roza was born Sarah Skinazi to a Sephardic Jewish family around the turn of the twentieth century. In fact, no one seems to know when she was born; like any diva, Roza was notoriously difficult about revealing the year of her birth. It seems that any year between 1890 and 1910 is credible. Sarah’s family moved to Thessaloniki in Northern Greece and it was around this time, working in a neighbouring city, that Sarah developed her love for singing and dancing, much to her mother’s disgruntlement. Sarah would become Roza, move to Athens and over a span of 50 years or so would become one of the most famous singers in Greece whose influence would spread over the Anatolian region, making her popular in Turkey. Roza herself couldn’t speak Greek at all in her early years.

What fascinates me about Roza is that she was independent, earning money and singing Rembetika at a time when it was seen as ‘un-Greek’ to do so. She also defied borders and gained fans all over South Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Remebetika, the genre Roza was most famous for singing, was synonymous with rebellion. In 1937, a ban was imposed on recording music in the style ofAmane; a singing style that we would associate with music of the Middle East. Singers of Amane were monitored closely.

The End of Amane - it would be back...

It seems strange that anyone would ban singing in a particular way, but the Rembetes seemed to pose a threat to conservative Greece. Many of them had escaped Smyrna in the ‘20s and come to the mainland as unwanted exiles, living underground, inevitably sliding into crime as they couldn’t find work. Roza’s songs often deal with drug addiction, in particular cocaine use, which was a particularly popular drug. Of course this is the 1920s/30s here, not San Fran ’67. Roza persisted and in the 1970s, (at this point in her sixties, maybe seventies, perhaps even eighties, no one knows of course) would enjoy a massive revival in her career and fortunes, appearing in mainstream press and TV as something of an icon. Roza died in 1980.

Her story is a fascinating one, and I’m merely sharing it as a gentle tribute - an acknowledgement if you like – of someone who I think was an intriguing personality and talent.

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