The Seattle Jewish Film Festival welcomed filmgoers aboard a Rebetiko tour bus in My Sweet Canary, director Roy Sher’s documentary about the revered Roza Eskenazi. If you are anything like me, the first word that should pop into your head is – who? No worries. In an hour and a half Roy Sher unfolds the story behind, arguably, the most influential woman in Rebetiko, a musical genre founded in the marginalized ethnicities of Asia Minor.
The life of Roza Eskenazi is unraveled chronologically and geographically through three young musicians traversing Anatolia, or modern day Turkey, playing tribute to the legendary diva in various venues along the way. Interviews are conducted with individuals who speak on different aspects of Roza’s life, and veneration is seen across the board, even from Roza’s live-in lover’s wife, who, when played an old recording of Roza, joyfully clapped and sang along.
Admittedly, I entered the theater slightly less than enthused, partially because of my ignorance regarding the topic. Not only had I never heard of Eskenazi, but what is Rebetiko? The best way I could understand it, and others seem to corroborate my feelings, is as Anatolia’s version of blues music. If I were to make a mix tape including only Robert Johnson and Roza Eskenazi, the sounds and rhythms would clash. The Rebetiko motifs sound nothing like a classic blues scale; but the genres are long lost siblings in their origins and emotion. The songs featured in the film sing about topics ranging from serving mezes as a waitress to the wonders of opium. These were words from marginalized ethnicities, speaking of life in a subculture. The music quickly grew on me, particularly the fast paced picking of the oud and the soulful vocals, gushing with feeling.
A special treat came at the end of the screening, which was co-sponsored by the Stroum Jewish Studies Program: audience members heard an open Q&A between Professor Devin Naar, an expert in Salonican Jewry, and Roy Sher. At the conclusion of a lively conversation, Dr. Naar asked Sher’s thoughts on his movie in the context of the political situation surrounding Turkey, Greece, and Israel, regions his movie seamlessly traverses without an ounce of friction. After all, Rebetiko is a style of music that knows no nationalist boundaries. Sher admitted to not having rose-colored glasses, and that art cannot transcend politics. What he does believe, however, is that art can initiate a dialogue where one previously didn’t exist.