My Sweet Canary
BY Willard Manus
As seen recently at the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival, MY SWEET CANARY is a remarkable documentary about the late rebetika singer Roza Eskenazi, the queen of the Greek blues. Roza, born to a poor Sephardic-Jewish family in Istanbul, began her singing career in the early part of the 20th century, appearing in clubs and dives at first, then graduating to concert stages and recording studios in a career that eventually spanned some fifty years and left an indelible mark on Greek pop music.
Rebetika was the music of the poor, uneducated, disaffected people; it was music that dealt bluntly and honestly with poverty, lonelinesss, social injustice, jail, drugs, sex and love. The Greek middle and upper classes as well as every other form of establishment (conservatories, universities, radio and TV, the church) spurned rebetika and held it in contempt. Even the Greek Left ignored its existence, if only because its songs neither begged for social change nor urged revolt.
In the face of such opposition, singers like Roza, Sotiria Bellou and Marika Ninou, backed up by composers and musicians like Markos Vamvakaris and Vasilis Tsitsanis, fought valiantly to keep the music alive. Their struggles bore fruit in the 1960s when rebetika was finally accepted by the middle class and the university students, especially when composers like Theodorakis and Hadzidakis reinvented and popularized it.
MY SWEET CANARY was written, directed and produced by the Israeli filmmaker Roy Sher. "The soulfulness that marked Billie Holiday's music echoed a life where profound sadness and unprecedented success were ultimately inseparable. As I listened more carefully, I found that rare combination of emotions in Roza's music too. I was determined to unravel the saga of her life," he confided in a program note.
Sher combined old footage of Roza with modern elements. He also brought together three young musicians from Greece, Turkey and Israel--Martha Demetri-Lewis, Mehtap Demir and Tomer Katz--and traveled to many of the places around the Mediterranean where Roza had lived and performed, culminating with a Roza Eskenazi finale tribute concert in Salonika. Backed by a large orchestra, Demetri-Lewis, Demir and Katz sang some of the songs Roza made famous, infusing them with the same passion, fire and love as Roza did.
Sher also interviewed some of the surviving musicians and singers who had performed with Roza, plus a few old friends and lovers of hers. He also weaved scenes from home movies and still photographs into the mix, making for an intimate portrait of Roza, a slip of a woman who lived only to dance and sing, with all the indominitable heart and soul of an Edith Piaf, a Billie Holiday.
Martha Demetri-Lewis has just released Homage to Roza, a CD which contains many of the songs she performed in MY SWEET CANARY, plus songs from her own repertoire. Martha grew up in London, the child of a Cypriot family, and has specialized in a mix of world music that includes tango, Mediterranean rhythms, even jazz and blues. Her crossover style and lush, thrilling voice have won her much critical acclaim. Martha not only sings and composes but plays percussion and guitar. She is a rising star.