What an amazing experience to listen to some of Melbourne’s best folk musicians render a musical tapestry of the Jewish experience in Greece. We were able to slip into the second performance at Melbourne’s Jewish Museum – both scheduled concerts had understandably sold out.

Melbourne bands The Habibis and Saray Iluminado combined to perform a selection of songs ranging from Sephardic romances to the familiar sound of Greece’s rebetiko.

Formed in 2013, Saray Iluminado’s repertoire ranges over Sevdah from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Jewish Sephardic music from across the Balkans. Many will have heard The Habibis renditions of traditional music from Greece, Anatolia, and the Balkans.

What struck me most was the connectedness of the song list. The compatibility of the instruments – bouzouki, violin, mandolin, and clarinet) was joined by the common themes – of romance and love, of home and loss. Where a Sephardic song evoked romance and marriage, the rebetiko talked of unrequited love, of pain of losing a lover.

Saray Iluminado’s Ernie Gruner and Nela Trifkovi provided instructive introductions to their songs. I especially enjoyed Nela’s explanation of The Nightingale and the Rose – of how the song combined the beauty and pain of life, of the nightingale’s sweet song, the pain of the thorn and the beauty of the rose.

I had been introduced to rebetiko through the voice of Roza Eshkanazi. So it was wonderful to hear the singing of The Habibis’ Pascal Latra bring to life one of Roza’s famous songs. Accompanied by the playing of Irine and Mulaim Vela, Pascal sang The Waitress (Garsona) – a song of the tavern, of a waitress making her living.

Constantinople-born Roza came to notice as a young singer in years prior to the WWI in then Ottoman-ruled Komotini. By the 1920s she would establish her career in Athens but she would return to northern Greece – to Thessaloniki and to Xanthi. Her first husband was a Hellene from Asia Minor and no doubt this experience influenced her attraction to the distinctive rebetiko style she made her own – smyrneika.

She was a true creation of the Sephardic diaspora – she played with Greek and Armenia musicians – and she sang in Greek, Armenian, Ladino, and Turkish to name only a few! The strength of her music even took her back to Constantinople, performing there in the 1950s. And what better environment to listen to her songs than in a celebration of Sephardic and Greek rebetiko.

Experiencing the concert reminded me of how cultures and peoples are connected – and how this is often reflected in folk music. We must all remind ourselves that we are part of a wider humanity. The alternative can be terrible. Roza Eshkanazi escaped The Holocaust that tore apart Greece’s century’s old Jewish community – surviving to help others and aid the resistance. To paraphrase the words of the English poet WH Auden from his poem September 1939 – we must learn to love each other or we must surely die.

Many at the concert took the opportunity to view the accompanying excellent photographic exhibition at the museum,The Jews of Greece.

If I could make one suggestion, I would have loved to have had joined the players and their music with a slideshow of images or old videos relevant to the songs – of the Jews of Thessaloniki, of Constantinople, of Roza Eshkanazi. This combination would have made a wonderful accompaniment to the excellent music selection.

Congratulations to Saray Iluminado and The Habibis for putting together such a wonderful and evocative concert. A real treat.

Catch the next performance of The Habibis and Saray Iluminado at Oakleigh’s Caravan Music Club (95 Drummond Street, Oakleigh, VIC) at 3.00 pm on Sunday 11 June. To book go to trybooking.com/255636.

Both bands have CDs available for purchase: Saray Iluminado’s Nightingales in the Rose Garden and The Habibis’ collection Selections 1995-2006.

Also coming up this month is a re-screening of a great film dealing with the Greek Jewish experience and the impact of The Holocaust. The excellent documentary by Larry Russo and Larry Confino Trezoros (Treasures): The Lost Jews of Kastoria screens at the Classic Cinemas (Elsternwick, VIC) on Wednesday 21 June at 7.00 pm.
The film is also part of the Jewish International Film Festival at the Classic later in the year.