No, this documentary is not about Greek opera star Maria Callas but a woman by the name of Rosa Sarah Eskenazi who was born in either 1897 or 1898 in the Jewish quarter of Istanbul.
Eskenazi was known in the 1930’s as the Queen of Rebetiko which can be roughly equated as the Greek blues. She was also an excellent singer of Smyrneiko. Rebetiko is greatly influenced by Anatolian music before various borders sliced it up. I see Turkish, Greek and Persian tinges to her music.
You might want to call this documentary her biography but being so dear to the heart of many Greeks perhaps the documentary might be called a tribute.
We follow three musicians skilled in Greek music from London, Jerusalem and Istanbul as they visit Istanbul, Athens and Thessaloniki trying to follow in the footsteps of Eskenazi and hook up with local musicians and play and sing as she would have done. Rest assured if you like Greek music you’ll enjoy the music you will hear in this film
Having visited Greece numerous times and been to many a Greek wedding including a couple in Greece I have had an earful of what I thought was “traditional” music but in fact was Rebetiko. Rebetiko petered out after the Second World War and subsequent “Europeanization” of Greece but was revived by students in Greece in the late sixties and early seventies.
Understanding some Greek might help you understand Rebetiko but the music and lyrics are truly soulful and sentimental often about the different aspects of love. And when most Greeks hear this music they too are transformed and swept away by it. If you see Greeks dancing to it is more than dancing but almost a melting into the music.
We hear from her biographer, family members and musicians that have worked with her. She only made one television appearance in the 1970’s. As her biographer says she has a special place in the heart of Greeks.
“Sweet Canary”, a huge success for Eskenazi, was recorded in 1934. In 1932 she was the first female to sign an exclusive recording contract with Columbia Records.
Her last appearance was in 1977 and she died in 1980 of what we today call Alzheimer’s.
When I next run into a Genie with a magic lamp I want to see Eskenazi perform in the late 1930’s!
This Israeli-Greek 2011 film was produced and directed by Roy Sher and is in several languages with English subtitles.
You can catch this film streaming at the Hellenic Film Society USA through February 6th. In fact, the Society streams a couple of Greek films for a month starting on the first Sunday of the month. It is accessible to viewers throughout the world so check out their website https://hellenicfilmusa.org/.
You can see the trailer here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KSRaB9Pseg&feature=emb_logo