Why you should care
Because her voice is the sound of superlative.
Sarah Skinazi was born broke. And Roza Eskenazi, the name she adopted, was her first attempt to smooth over that poverty with a name that at least sounded nice.
Even rougher than that, she was born broke and Jewish in Istanbul. Back in the mid-1890s Roza’s father was what the Yiddish would have called a schmatte salesman, a rag dealer, and things could not have been more dire. But Roza’s mother was a maid for a rich family, a rich family that entertained wealthy visitors, and during one visit the owners of a well-known Turkish tavern overheard the young Roza sing.
They were enthralled, and even though Roza’s mother rejected their offers to hire her for the stage, someone’s mind had been made up: Roza had decided that this is precisely what she would do when she was old enough. And she did.
Her family moved to Thessaloniki, Greece, when she was still young, and Roza started helping Grand Hotel Theater dancers who lived in her building carry their costumes to the theater. This was the beginning of her dancing career. In the 1920s she moved to Athens and started singing on stage. The response was absolutely fairytale-esque: By 1929 she was recording for Columbia, and by the mid-1930s the number of songs she had recorded topped 300.
And that’s when the roller coaster kicked into gear: Her song about heroin got her banned by the Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas, World War II struck and the Italians invaded Greece, followed by the Germans. As a Jew she had to get fake papers, but, in a move that screamed chutzpah, she also opened a club, sang, had an affair with a German officer, supported resistance fighters, housed British secret agents and rescued Jews, including her own family. Until it all came crashing down with her arrest by the Nazis in 1943. Through the intervention of her German officer lover, she was released after several months in prison and was forced to spend the remainder of the war in hiding. The post-war years saw her career rise again, and in the 1950s she began touring internationally. She performed in New York City in 1952 on what would be the first of several tours of the United States, her sinewy voice snaking through Middle Eastern instrumentation, soaked with a certain kind of longing.
Though appreciation for her singing ebbed during the 1960s, it flowed again in the 1970s (a sampling follows). Eventually, age and Alzheimer’s caught up with her, and at her last show in 1977, three years before her death, she sang her ass off in front of a sold-out audience of fans in the Greek city of Patras. And when she died, she died with her longtime lover by her side, who happened to be 30 years her junior.