BY SIMON YAFFE
THE story of Roza Ezkenazi may not be familiar to many, but a new film about the late musician is aiming to change that.
My Sweet Canary, which will be premiered in London on Thursday, tells the story of Roza, who was the most famous singer in Greece and Turkey in the 1930s.
In the documentary - directed by Israeli Roy Sher - three artists devoted to her legacy retrace her steps and perform her songs.
One of them is British Greek-Cypriot singer and composer Martha Lewis, who is featured with Turkish singer and musician Mehtap Demir and Israeli Tomer Katz, an oud and bouzouki player
Martha said: "In 2006, I presented a documentary on BBC Radio about Greek blues music. That is when I discovered Roza and her music.
"I was commissioned to record a piece of her music and, years later, Roy came across it on the internet and got in touch with me."
Roza was born in late 19th century Istanbul as Sara Skinaz to a Sephardi family.
She emigrated to Thessaloniki, Greece, which was occupied by the Ottoman Empire, and started performing as a dancer in local clubs and cafés. Roza's rise to fame began in the late 1920s, after she was discovered in Piraeus by Panagiotis Toundas, director of Colombia records in Greece.
Londoner Martha explained: "Roza's family turned its back on her because of her choice of career. In that era, if you chose to be a singer, it could be at the cost of your family.
"In Thessaloniki, though, she was surrounded by Jewish people as it had a huge Jewish population, around 20 per cent of the city."
Roza endured a stormy early life. She survived the upheaval of the Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923, which involved around two million people and became a single mother at 15, to Paraschos.
Roza also escaped persecution by the Nazis in the Thessaloniki occupation which resulted in mass deportation to Auschwitz of the Jewish community.
She managed to obtain a fake baptismal certificate.
As well as exploring Roza's life, the documentary looks at how the genre of music she mainly performed, rebetiko, evolved to reflect the harsh realities of marginalised communities at that time, inspired by the experiences of refugees.
"Rebetiko is still huge in Israel," Martha added. "We filmed for a week in Jerusalem at the Greek Jewish community centre.
"Roza recorded more than 500 songs. Many of them have been rehashed over generations, but many Israelis, Greeks and Turks know her songs.
"Working on the film made me realise the connections between Greeks and Jews.
"Roza recorded songs in Ladino, Greek, Hebrew and Turkish, so the Greeks think her music belongs to them, as do the Jews and Turks."
She went on tour in America in 1952 to sing for the Greek and Turkish communities, becoming the first Greek-Jewish singer to perform there.
During the 1960s, Roza made new recordings of several of her old songs and in the 1970s, after the fall of the colonels' regime in Greece and the increase in rebetiko popularity among Greek teenagers, her career regained momentum.
She spent her twilight years at her home in Athens, with husband Christos Philipakopoulos, having converted to Greek Orthodoxy in 1976.
Roza gave her last performance in September 1977, three years before her death.
Martha said: "The last scene in the documentary is of a concert we performed in Thessaloniki, with Jews, Greeks and Turks on the same stage.
"It was one of the most powerful things I will ever do - it was full of love, heart and spirit.
"It is about three cultures joining together."
The film, which is in Greek, Turkish, Hebrew and Ladino, has English subtitles.
Following its premiere, it will be screened at Cineworlds in Manchester, Birmingham and Brighton.
It has already been screened worldwide to great critical acclaim.
Martha has also recorded a CD called Homage to Roza, which will be launched at the London Jazz Festival next month.
My Sweet Canary will be released in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Brighton from November 7 www.cineworld.co.uk/whatson/my-sweet-canary