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Books and Music

Roza Eskenazi, the Queen of Rebetiko

We talked a little bit about rebetiko (sometimes called rembetiko - they're used interchangeably) in the article about Kostas Roukounas. We know it was the music of the underworld; the sounds of the dispossessed, the refugee and the exile. It was a heavily macho style of music, full of lyrics about getting drunk, getting high and generally behaving badly. Still, it somehow managed to make it sound like they were having an enviably good time. 


Mixed into this potent stew of testosterone, baglama and hashish were a few exceptional women - Roza Eskenazi first among them.


Roza was born Sarah Skinazi, a Greek Jew, in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The exact date is unknown, as she seemed to like to conceal her age from early on - but somewhere between the mid-1890s and 1910, which is the date she favored telling people. When she was a young girl she moved with most of her family to Thessaloniki. 


Her house was shared with dancers who lived upstairs, and soon she became enamored of the theater life. Her family was adamantly against the idea, as it was considered a low-class and disreputable lifestyle. Her mother actually beat her when she found out that Roza had danced on-stage at a local theater. This was simply not what respectable young women of the time did. 


Roza didn't look like she worried a whole lot about what others deemed "respectable"...

Roza wasn't dissuaded, however, and soon she went off to Piraeus, where she joined an Armenian troupe. She danced in theaters and tavernas, but in short time she began singing, both in her native Turkish as well as Armenian and the Greek she had to quickly learn as a child. She also sang in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language used throughout the Mediterranean by Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492.


She dropped the Sarah for Roza (or Rozitsa) early on in her career.


She was discovered by the same legendary composer and recording mogul Panagiotis Toundas, who discovered Kostas Roukounas. He saw her perform at a club and was impressed by her exceptional singing and dancing talent, but she brushed him off sharply, thinking he was just trying to pick her up. Eventually the misunderstanding was smoothed over, and they had their first recording session in 1929. 


Her career really began to take off then. She recorded well over 300 songs in the 1930s - Smyrneika, Rembetika, Demotika (folk music) and more. She became one of the highest paid artists of the time, and according to one source that I haven't been able to verify, the highest paid. 


Think about that for a second. 


Here we are in 2019, and in the news the morning I wrote this was a piece about the American Women's soccer team - four-time World Cup champions - who are still not getting paid what the US Men's team  - whose best effort was third-place in 1930! - is getting paid.


And this remarkable woman, singing around the same time those mediocre American male athletes were doing their best, was crushing it. 


Her voice was both strong and sweet, and has a quality that - despite the decades between -  still has a haunting power to this day. She has been compared to Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf for her vulnerability and poignancy. At first I thought that was hyperbole, but the more I hear of her, I absolutely agree. She is in that same mold. 


Her songs were about love and pain, heroin and cocaine - but somehow never sound seedy or broken. Much like American blues, the saddest material can make for oddly satisfying music. Her popularity is credited with being largely responsible for taking rebetiko out of the hashish dens and small clubs and into mainstream. 


During World War II and the German occupation, Roza managed not only to escape deportation, but ran a nightclub in Athens right under the noses of the Nazis. She had a fake baptism certificate to hide her identity, as well as a German officer lover who aided her.


Roza was able to hide resistance fighters and British agents right in her own home. She saved the lives of many Greek Jews. But eventually her luck ran out and she was arrested in 1943. She spent three months in jail, but was released thanks to the efforts of her German lover. Unlike other European women who survived the war by sleeping with the enemy, Roza was no collaborator. She used her German to assist her, which in turn meant she could save and help Jews and Allied forces, rather than be used to bring them down. 


After the war, though her career wasn't what it once was, she went on tour. In the US alone, she performed in New York, Chicago and Detroit. She also toured back in the city of her birth, Constantinople. 


She had a resurgence of popularity in the 1970s, after the military junta was out of power and the rebetiko genre was experiencing a revival. (The dictator, Metaxas,  had censored at least one of her songs as too degenerate!) 


Despite being in her 70s or 80s (remember, no one was really sure of her age), she still performed live, both singing and dancing. A new generation began to idolize her. She had several concerts and appeared on television until the late 1970s, when she stopped singing publicly. 


Although Jewish from birth, she converted to the Greek Orthodox faith in 1976 and took the name Rozalia Eskenazi. 


She lived quietly in her last years with the long-time love of her life, Christos Philipakopoulos, who she'd been with since the late 1940s. She suffered from Alzheimer's the last few years of her life, and Christos would find her when she wandered off, tenderly bring her home, clean her up and put her to bed. 


Roza died on December 2, 1980. The diva was inexplicably buried in an unmarked grave in the village of Stomio, near Corinth. 


In 2008, the village's cultural committee raised the money to put up a simple headstone. It reads:


Roza Eskenazi



Roza - rembetissa and diva. Never forgotten.

Trying to choose from Roza's extensive repertoire is an exercise in futility. Here are a small selection I particularly like, but please - do yourself a favor and look her up on YouTube to hear the full versions, plus so many others. It's time well-spent.


These links will take you to samples on Amazon. If the song link isn't on there (sometimes there's a glitch) just refresh the page. (Links are for readers' convenience only; I am not currently an affiliate of Amazon and make no commission from their sales.)


1. Hariklaki  (Little Hariklia)


2. Ouzo, Hasis (Ouzo, Hashish)


3. Konialis (Man from Konyali)


4. Giati Foumaro Kokaini (Why Do I Smoke Cocaine)


5. Ta Gidia kai ta Provata  (The Goats and the Sheep)


6. To Kanarini (Kanarini Mou Glyko) (My Sweet Canary)

Are you interested in Greek music and the fascinating people who make it? Please take a look at the Books & Music section for more articles!


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