Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rosa Eskenazi

This weekend I saw My Sweet Canary, a documentary which explores the life of Rosa Eskenazi (189?-1980). Rosa Eskenazi was a famous Greek-Jewish rebetika singer. She was born into a destitute, low-class Sephardic family in Istanbul in the 1890s.
Her family later moved to Thessaloniki, which was still part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. Eskenazi was discovered while living in Kommotini (today part of Greece), and later became an international rebetika star.

                                   Rosa Askenazi sings a typical rebetiko song.

My Sweet Canary was shown as part of the New York Greek film festival, which continues until November 6th. The documentary follows three young musicians -- an Israeli, a Turk and Greek -- who travel through Greece and Turkey to uncover Eskenazi's life.

Rebetika is a genre that combines elements of shared culture from Anatolia (and the Balkans), dating back to the Ottoman period; rebetika songs draw on the Arab and Turkish makam system. Instruments typically used include the bouzouki, oud, baglamas, clarinet, santouri, tambouras, violin, guitar etc.

               Mehtap Demir performs "Rambi," a rebetiko song, in honor of Eskenazi.

Rebetika developed in Greece, brought by refugees who had departed Asia Minor after the Greco-Turkish war of 1923. I thought the documentary did a good job of presenting the latter event, which remains a highly sensitive issue today, while at the same time evoking the shared culture that existed in the region during the Ottoman period. Rebetika songs are typically performed in Greek and Turkish – or a mixture of the two; vocations like "ah maan" "ya allah," "ya leli" are commonly used. I thought it would have be interesting if the documentary had explored more cultural influences from Greece's northern neighbors, however the focus was mainly on Greece and Turkey.

As rebetika music gained popularity in the 1920s, it came to be associated with the urban lower classes; it was considered a seedy, disreputable genre. Songs dealt with subjects like alcohol and drug use, prison life, but also evoked the deep pain of refugees and immigrants who left Asia Minor for Greece in 1923. Thus rebetika is also known as the blues of Greece. It was banned in the 1930s under the Metaxas dictatorship, which considered it too backwards and oriental. It fell out of favor in 1950s, but was revived in the 1970s and remains very popular today, in Greece, the US, Israel, Europe, etc.

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