Writer, researcher, translator, critic

Exist Yesterday.

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1935: Roza Eskenazi

 

This week I'm thinking about Roza Eskenazi's 1935 rebetiko song "Mas Kinigoun Ton Argile" (roughly translated, We Are Hunting for Hookah).

Recorded in Athens and issued on German label Odeon, with authorial credits going to Dimitris Barousis (composer) and legendary underworld figure Nikos Mathesis (lyrics), although Eskenazi herself has also been credited with creating the song by some historians; it has unsurprisingly been a common practice throughout popular-music history for well-known male composers and lyricists to receive credit for women's work. The technical genre term printed on the label is "zeibekiko," which refers to a particular old-fashioned dance from Greek Anatolia, and one of the major musical strains feeding into rebetiko.

Some cultural background would probably be useful here, for anyone unfamiliar with the recent history of this part of the world. Although the present-day nation of Greece achieved its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830, there was still a large diaspora of culturally and linguistically Hellenic people throughout the Ottoman region, particularly in western Anatolia (present-day Turkey). It wasn't until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and establishment of the Turkish state following World War I that the Greek-speaking minority were forcibly expelled from Anatolia (as, on a much more horrific scale, the Armenians had been a few short years earlier). Repatriated in Greece, and particularly identified with the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Drapetsona (a suburb of Athens and adjoining the port of Piraeus), famous for its bordellos, hashish dens, and street toughs, the Anatolian Greeks, with their own particular cultural traditions, were key to the development of the new urban musical mélange, fusing Eastern dance forms with Western melodic sensibilities and united by the crisp pluck of the bouzouki, which would start to be called rebetiko around 1930.

Like a blues or a fado, this song cycles through a limited melodic structure, with Spyros Peristeris' strict-time bouzouki taking the bulk of the accompaniment. The lyrics are dense with local and period slang, but as far as I can make them out through the fog of machine translation, they are mocking upper-class people who go slumming in hashish dens, the Athens equivalent of white Manhattanites of the period flocking to Harlem for the nightlife.

Roza Eskenazi was one of the four or five most important performers of the first generation of rebetiko. She was born in the Ottoman Empire to a struggling Turkish-speaking Jewish family, and grew up in the predominately Jewish city of Thessaloniki, which did not become part of Greece until 1913. She was already a widow and a mother by the time she began to sing and dance professionally circa 1920, and the resonant ache of her voice, along with her taste for modern, slangy songs that addressed the seedier elements of life, made her a popular recording artist beginning in 1929. By 1935 she was a star throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and although history would soon move past the bright moment of the 1930s when rebetiko was one of the most urgent and thrilling sounds in global music, she managed to survive long enough for a second career in the 1960s and 70s as a new generation rediscovered the classic era.

I'm still very much groping my way through the music of what used to be called the Near East; harmonically as well as geographically, Greece is a bridge from Europe to the Middle East, which is where the next entry in this series will pick up. Stay tuned.