Roza Eskenazi


Rounder CD 1080

I must say it's most encouraging to see a label like Rounder Records lavishing such care and attention on the production and presentation of music like this.  Time was I had to struggle with a Greek-English dictionary, painstakingly trying to translate the sleeve notes of a Greek LP, only to realise that the sentence I have taken 20 minutes to render into English reads "This long-playing record is also available on cassette or 8-track cartridge".  Cover pictureHere we have, in English, biographical notes, a paragraph about each of the accompanists, an explanation of the song and dance types, a glossary, as well as lyrics in transliterated Greek and in English translation.  That's the way to do it.

Roza Eskenazi was one of the great stars of the early days of Greek music recordings.  Her heyday was the 1930s, when she and Rita Abadzi assumed the mantle Marika Papagika had worn in the previous decade, as best-loved woman singers in the rembetika idiom.  Some of the shaping influence on Eskenazi's music is likely to have come from her Sephardic Jewish background, but the music is very much recognisable as representing the Cafe Aman style, with its strong Turkish and Arabic influence - the high, melismatic vocals, richly ornamented and deeply emotionally expressive.  The glossary gives 'mercy' as one of its alternative translations of 'Aman', and I am rather taken with the idea of Eskenazi punctuating her songs with cries of "Aman! Aman!", much as Aretha Franklin would call out "Have Mercy!" on her records 30 years later.

This is not the bouzouki and harmony vocals rembetika that became popular later in the 1930s.  Eskenazi sings solo, frequently with use of rubato, to the free accompaniment of ouds (in the hands of the great Tomboul), occasional guitars and the searing, soaring sounds of a violin otrkemence (a Turkish variety of the lyra, a bowed instrument, similar in size, and sometimes in sound, to the violin).  The subject matter, though, is pure rembetika - smoking waterpipes in hashish dens -Mes tou Zamikou ton teke; partying in beer halls - Ferte Birres, lamenting the debilatory effects of too much cocaine - Yiati Foumaro Kokain; flirting with the tough guys - Hariklaki; gambling - Me Zournades Ke Daoulia or even eating pastourma - Konialis.  Much of the rest of the lyrics reveal the songs to be more generalised, heartbroken laments, although O Xenitevmenos is a song of exile in foreign lands - possibly the very thing to appeal to the Greek immigrant in the US, where Eskenazi was especially popular.  One wonders whether her appeal was because listeners could identify with the lyrics (that is, they were all smoking too much dope and living it up in beer joints as well) or whether it was the vicarious appeal of the picaresque - all the more titillating for its remoteness from real life.

Whatever the appeal, Eskenazi remained popular for many years, still touring into the 1950s, and was even able to benefit from the revival of interest in rembetika in the 1970s.  Listening to this disk it is not difficult to see why - even without understanding a word of the songs, the attraction of such a beautiful voice is enormously seductive, and one that the passing of the 60 years since these records were made has done nothing to dispel.

Ray Templeton - 2.9.97

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