Roza Eskenazi was the “Billie Holliday of the Greek blues.” She was the queen of rebetiko, a musical style hugely popular among Greek’s urban poor with its songs of love, joy, and sorrow. Born Sarah Skinazi, she was part of an impoverished Sephardi family from Constantinople (Istanbul) that moved, when she was young, to the booming Jewish city of Thessaloniki (Salonika) in Greece. Her father and mother were somewhat itinerant, working as rag traders, as money changers, as a maid, and as mill workers. Her birthdate is uncertain, in part because she was prone to shaving years off her actual age. Roza did not attend school but was literate and multilingual, singing in multiple languages including Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, Italian, Ladino, and Yiddish.
Determined to be a performer from a young age, she encountered resistance from her parents. Performing was, particularly for young women, less than respectable, and Roza was beaten when they discovered that she had danced at a local theater. Around 1910, the teenage Roza met a wealthy local man. His parents, considering Roza of questionable morals, disapproved of the match. The couple eloped but her husband soon died. Sarah changed her name to Roza, placed their young son in a children’s home (they would be reconciled many years later), and spent almost two decades as a little-known singer and dancer in nightclubs and taverns around Greece.
In 1929, Roza was at last “discovered” by a prominent composer and record label boss. Her first recordings were a marked success and helped bring rebetiko and other forms of Greek folk music into the mainstream. She would record over 500 songs in the following decade. Her music, and rebetiko more generally, was popular throughout the Mediterranean and Balkans. She toured widely, including to her native Turkey, despite the poor relations between that country and Greece. With connections to many cultures, she used to say music was her nationality.
She wrote the lyrics and music to some of her songs but was best known for her voice. It has been described as simultaneously hard and yearning, “a mingling of desire, infatuation, and pain.” She was perhaps the most popular and well-remunerated Greek singer of her time, although a fondness for expensive jewelry strained her finances. She had other troubles. Her second husband, a famous actor, drank himself to death. Like many rebetiko singers, she often sang of profane subjects and her song “When You Take Heroin” was banned by the Greek dictator of the 1930s, Ioannis Metaxas.
It would seem that her Jewishness was not widely known, and she continued to perform at the Athens nightclub she owned even after the German army occupied Greece in 1941. She was protected by a false baptismal certificate and a real German officer who was her lover. During this time, she hid Greek resistance fighters, British soldiers, and Jews, including her own family. In 1943, she was arrested, apparently because her Jewishness had been discovered. Her German paramour managed to have her released and she spent the rest of the war years in hiding.
After the war, Eskenazi spent extended periods in the US, singing to the large Greek and Turkish diasporas there. In 1959, she returned to Athens to be with her new partner, a Greek police officer many years her junior. They would remain together for the rest of her life. Rebetiko music and Roza had both fallen out of fashion by then. She continued to perform in nightclubs and on television until 1977 (when she was probably 80-plus years old), but when she died in 1980, the public had largely forgotten her. Nonetheless, musicians and musicologists have continued to rediscover the power of her voice, and the earthy authenticity of the music she made. In 2011, a documentary on her life, named My Sweet Canary after one of her most popular songs, was released.