Eskenazy was born Sarah Skinazi. He was the child of a poor Jewish Sephardic family in Istanbul. Throughout her career, she hid the exact date of her birth and claimed to have been born in 1910. In fact, she was at least a decade older and was probably born between 1895 and 1897. Her father, Abraham Skinazi , he was a jerk. In addition to Rosa, Abraham Skinazi and his wife, Flora, had two sons, Nisim, the eldest, and Sami.
Shortly after the turn of the century, the Skinazi family moved to Thessaloniki, which was then still under Ottoman rule. At that time the city experienced rapid economic growth, resulting in a population increase of 70% between 1870 and 1917. Abraham Skinazi found work in a cotton processing plant, while at the same time doing various occasional jobs to improve the financial situation of his family. At this time, he entrusted young Sarah to a girl in the neighborhood, who was teaching literacy to various girls. These courses were Rosa’s only formal education.
For a time Sara, her brother and their mother lived in Komotini, a city that at that time had a significant Turkish population. Rosa’s mother found work there as a maid in a wealthy family and Rosa helped her with the household. One day the Turkish owners of a local tavern heard Rosa sing. They were excited by her voice and immediately went to her house to ask her to appear in their center. Sarah’s mother was outraged by the prospect of Sarah – or any other member of her family – becoming an artist. Many years after this episode, Rosa admitted that the period she had lived in Komotini was a defining point in her life. It was there, she said, that she decided to become a singer and dancer.
The first professional years
Sarah was not going to make her dream come true until she returned to Thessaloniki. At the time, her family was living in a rented apartment near the Grand Hotel, and many of their neighbors performed at the theater. Every day, Sara helped two of these dancers carry their work clothes to the theater, hoping that one day she would appear on stage with them. It was there that she finally began her career as a dancer. While still in her teens, Sarah Skinazi fell in love with Giannis Zartinidis, a wealthy man from one of the wealthiest families in Cappadocia. However, Zartinidis’ family did not approve of this relationship, considering Sarah of dubious morality. However, the two young men were stolen around 1913 and Sarah changed her name to Rosa, the name by which she became known during her career.
Zartinidis died of unknown causes around 1917, leaving Rosa with a small child, Paraschos. Realizing that Rosa could not pursue her career and raise a child at the same time, she handed it over to the boarding school of Agios Taxiarchis in Xanthi. His father’s family agreed to support him and Paraschos Zardinidis later became a senior officer in the Hellenic Air Force. He reconnected with his mother several years later, after finding her in Athens in 1935.
Rosa had moved to Athens after Zartinidis’ death to pursue a career in music. He soon became associated with two Armenian cabaret artists, Seramou and Zambela, who distinguished Rosa because she spoke Turkish and had a talent for singing. So, although Rosa continued to appear as a dancer, she also began to sing for the center’s guests in Greek, Turkish and Armenian. It was there that Panagiotis Tountas first discovered her in the late 1920s. Tountas immediately realized her talent and introduced her to Vassilis Toumpakaris of Columbia Records.
K. Lambros, R. Eskenazi, A. Tomboulis (Athens, c. 1930)
Rosa’s first two recordings for Columbia, “Mandili Kalamatiano” and “Cut Eleni the Olive” (circa 1928) marked the beginning of a long course in discography, which would continue almost uninterruptedly until the 1960s. By the mid-1930s, Rosa had recorded almost 300 songs for the company, and had become one of the most popular stars of folk music. Some of these songs were traditional, especially from Greece and Smyrna. However, her most important contribution to the local music scene was the recording of rebetiko songs and, more specifically, the Smyrna school of rebetiko song. She held a special place in the popularity of this music in the popular culture of the country and even today her special voice is identified with this musical genre.
Shortly after she started recording, Rosa also began appearing at the Taygetos Center in Athens, owned by the Sereleas family. Composer Panagiotis Tountas, violinist Dimitris Semsis (or Salonikios), Agapios Tomboulis on oud, Lambros Savvaidis on canon and Lambros Leontaridis on political lyre (one of her closest collaborators) appeared with her. Eskenazy, however, was the big star of these appearances and made the unprecedented amount of 200 drachmas every night. Many years later, she confided in her biographer, Costas Hatzidoulis, that she should have become richer only from her appearances, but she had a weakness for expensive jewelry and spent much of her income on it.
D. Semsis, A. Tomboulis, R. Eskenazi (Athens, 1932)
As her career progressed, Rosa signed an exclusive contract with Columbia Records, circa 1931 or 1932. Under the terms of the contract, she had to record 40 songs a year and receive 5% for each record sold. At the time, she was the only singer to have a percentage deal with a record company.
Her career did not take long to spread beyond the borders of Greece, to the Greek Diaspora. Together with Tomboulis, she traveled to Egypt, Albania and Serbia, places where she was warmly welcomed not only by the local Greek communities, but also by the Turkish ones. Her songs also contained some sharpness and in fact one of them, “Preza when you drink” was censored by the dictator Ioannis Metaxas himself. As a result of this decision, many other rebetiko artists were marginalized, while the new current within the rebetiko, represented by Vassilis Tsitsanis, would gain ground after the War.
World War II
But soon the independence of Greece itself would receive a major blow. In 1940 Italy invaded Greece and in 1941 the German army occupied the country. Despite the oppressive regime of the Occupation, Rosa continued to appear and in 1942 she even opened her own music center, “Krystal”, together with her son Parashos, with whom they had reconnected in the meantime. Although he was Jewish, he managed to get a fake birth certificate. However, what ensured her protection was her relationship with a German officer.
But Rosa was not an ally of the Germans. Instead, she used her privileged position to support the Greek Resistance, hiding resistance fighters, even British resistance envoys, inside her house. He also managed to save several Jews in Athens and Thessaloniki. Among those Rosa rescued from their transfer to Auschwitz was her own family. In 1943, however, her cover collapsed and she was arrested. She remained in prison for three months and was later released, following the concerted efforts of her German lover and her son. He hid for the rest of the war until the end, fearing that he might be captured again by the Germans.
The post-war years
During the long period of her career, Rosa developed good relations not only with Vassilis Toumpakaris, the director of Columbia Records, but also with Minos Matsas, who had founded Odeon / Parlophone in the meantime. This event allowed her to promote many other well-known artists, such as Marika Ninou and Stella Haskell. He put them in the union of musicians, “Mutual Aid”, and after a while the songs of Vassilis Tsitsanis began to be recorded.
In 1949, Rosa, who was singing at the time in Patras, went to the police station to get a new ID. The event that determined the rest of her life came when she met Christos Filippakopoulos, a young police officer who was about 30 years her junior. But despite the age difference between them, they fell in love. This relationship was to last, in various ways, until the end of Rosa’s life.
Although Rosa had toured extensively in the Balkans by then, she traveled to the United States for the first time in 1952 to sing in the Greek and Turkish diaspora communities. This tour, sponsored by the Greek restaurant and bar “Pantheon” in New York, finally lasted many months.
This was the first of a series of Rosa tours abroad. In 1955, the Albanian impresario Ayden Leskoviku from the Balkan Records Company invited her to appear and record in Istanbul, the city where she was born. Eventually Rosa recorded around 40 songs and received about $ 5,000 for those recordings. Although it was a relatively low fee, Rosa later said that her fee for these appearances, along with gratuities, was ten times higher than that amount.
Shortly after Istanbul, Rosa left for two more tours in America. Appeared in New York, Detroit and Chicago. On July 5, 1958, during her second trip to the United States, she married Frank Alexander. But this marriage was only in name. Rosa did it to get a work permit in the US. However, Eskenazy loved America and would have settled there if she had not left behind her other great love, Christos Filippakopoulos. So, he returned to Athens in 1959 to be near him. With the money he had made in America he bought for the two of them a big house in Kipoupoli, as well as two trucks and some horses. Together with Filippakopoulos they would live in this house until the end of Rosa’s life.
Decline and recovery
Eskenazy was in her sixties and the music scene in Greece had changed significantly in the last 40 years, that is, from the time she started her career. Smyrnaean and rebetiko had lost their popularity and so Rosa, like other great personalities of this kind, now appeared occasionally in provincial festivals and in smaller artistic events. Although she recorded a few songs in the years that followed, they were mostly re-performances of her older known hits that she recorded in small record companies.
It was not until the late 1960s that she began to show an interest in the early part of her career. RCA released two 45-bit records containing four of its songs (including “Amane Sabah”) with violinist Dimitris Manisalis, but their release was limited. But this whole scenario changed in the early 1970s, during the last period of military rule in Greece. Suddenly the Greek youth became interested in the urban folk songs of the past and many important collections were released. One of the most important was “Rebetiki Istoria”, a collection of six rebetiki music records, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies. After a long absence from the limelight, Rosa, now in her seventies, became a star again.
What made the difference in the 1970s was the widespread use of television. Rosa quickly adapted to this new medium and appeared on a number of shows. In 1973 he appeared in a documentary, “To Bouzouki” (directed by Vassilis Marou) and in 1976 in a TV show dedicated to Haroula Alexiou, which contained interviews and songs. All this time, however, Rosa never forgot her roots that were in the music centers and so she appeared in some weekly performances at “Foundation”, a bar in Plaka.
As she was one of the few rebetiko singers still alive, the artists and musicologists of that time began to study the style of her music, in which they saw the “authenticity” of this kind of music. All this significantly influenced a new generation of performers, such as Haris Alexiou (with whom they had appeared together on television), Eleni Vitali and Glykeria later. Unfortunately, although musicians and academics were excited about her talent, as well as her knowledge of a lost music world, the general public did not show the same interest and considered Rosa more of a curiosity. However, she continued to appear. Her last appearance was in Patras, in September 1977. Fans of all ages came to see her sing and dance, but also to get a taste of the music of the past.
The last years of Rosa
Rosa Eskenazy spent the last years of her life calmly at her home in Kipoupoli, together with Christos Filippakopoulos. Although she was born a Jew, she was baptized an Orthodox Christian in 1976 and was named Rosalia Eskenazy. For the next two years she began to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease and often lost her bearings as she returned home. In the summer of 1980 she fell down and broke her hip. She stayed in the hospital for three months, with Christos constantly by her side to take care of her. She returned home for a while, but was later re-admitted to a private clinic due to an infection. She died at this clinic on December 2, 1980.
She was buried in a makeshift grave in the village of Stomio in Corinth. In 2008 the cultural association of the village raised money and added a tombstone, which read “Rosa Eskenazy, Artist” …
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