ARIS SAN: THE MYSTERIOUS STORY OF AN ORIENTAL SURF GUITARIST

I would like to express my gratefulness to Mr. Moti Morad for his sincere support.

Aris San led a mysterious life as a non-Jewish Greek singer with Israeli citizenship, who had close ties with generals and politicians. He was a megastar, club owner, and lover of countless movie actresses and singers. But above all, he is most remembered for the magic he brought to the music of his day, through his unique arrangements, guitar playing and lucid vocal style.

Aris San, was born in a city called Kalamata in Greece with the name Aristides Saisanas (Αριστείδης Σεϊσανάς) on 19 January 1940. In his early youth he kicked off his musical career by playing laiko music with his bouzouki in the taverns of Athens. When he was 17, he decided to leave Greece and headed to Israel.

This adventure would ultimately channel his music into another dimension. Not only that, but it would shape his personal destiny.  Despite a proliferation of rumours relating to his emigration to Israel, we can with certainty rely on the views of Moty (Moti) Morad, his long term band-mate and bass player. According to Morad, San visited Turkey when he was 17 years old. There he met and fell enough with a Jewish girl from Jerusalem. Back in Greece, he heard the news that she was getting married in Jerusalem. He decided to see her for the last time and went to Israel. But when he realized she could not be swayed, he became heartbroken and went to Jaffa, where he found some Ladino speaking people who had emigrated from Greece. He asked for their help and they got him work at the Arianna Club. The owner of the club was Shmuel Barzilay, a Thessaloniki Jew.

At first he couldn’t find much time to work in Arianna Club, because his illegal emigration was is covered by Israeli authorities, and he was deported. Aris was far too stubborn to accept defeat and he returned once again to Israel in a small boat. In his second period in Arianna, he was close to politicians and other community leaders in Israel, performing in the wedding ceremony of Moshe Dayan’s children’s double wedding. This closeness resulted in his acquiring an Israeli passport, although he was not Jewish. He also became some sort of Zionist, and even sang a song called “I am a Zionist” in his “Hits in Hebrew” LP from 1975.

After he returned to perform at the Arianna Night Club which was very popular among Jews who had emigrated from Thessaloniki, he shortened his name, appearing thus – as Aris San – on a 78 rpm record made in Greece. His first record was released by Odeon with the serial GA 7992 and had the songs “To Paraskanos Sokrati” (The Socrates’ Foreskin) and “Okto Htipaei To Roloi” (Eight Beats The Clock).

Not only did Aris San perform Greek songs popular among Jews who had emigrated from Greece, but also the other various communities liked his unique bouzouki sound. Hence he became one of the pioneers of Laiko in Israel.

His first record in Israel was a 45 rpm released by Arton. In the recording sessions, he was accompanied by studio orchestra of the Hed-Arzi Group. The tracks were “Mandalena”, “Zimba”, “I Zoi Mou” and “Mi saurie”. Arton Records was a sub-label from the HedArzi group. There were also representations of music companies such as “Durium” from Italy, “Mercury” from USA, and “Vogue” from France in Hed-Arzi group in Israel.

In 1958 Aris San made his first Medium Play album as a self-titled 10 inch record, released by the label Makolit in Israel. He also made a 10 inch album accompanying the singer Artemis with the same label. Some of the songs from these albums were also released by Olympia as EPs.

From 1959 until the first half of 1960s he also made records for the Olympia label. One of the known records from that era is a 78 rpm shellac record with the serial number 2189. The tracks in the record were “Atsigana Mou Ela Mana Mou” and “Manolia”. “Manolia” was a song from Turkish queer singer Zeki Müren which also achieved quite a bit of renown in Greece and Israel and was covered by lots of singers like Trifonas, Manolis Angelopoulos, Yorgo Vapuridis, Stelios Kazantzidis.

Aris San made a cover version which has yet to be recorded on CD or proffered on any platforms to this day. Probably in the same year Aris also released a 78 rpm shellac record from the same company with the serial number of 2198 – a cover of one of the most important hits of Stelios Kazantzidis’ career called “Madubala”. The flip side is also an outstanding laiko hit named “Zaira” .

Also Aris San appeared in an LP released in USA in the same year named “I remember Greece (Greek Folk Songs)”. In the album Aris San’s orchestra accompanied him along with Meri Kosaku and Artemis.

During the first half of the 1960s’ San made LPs, EPs and singles with the name “Aris San and His Orchestra” and or sometimes “Aris San with His Guitar and Orchestra”, “Aris San with His Bouzouki” etc.

San also founded his personal label named Arisphone and released an album named “With His Guitar and His Orchestra” (LP30) in 1960. Probably the things didn’t go so tip-top, and that accounts for many of Aris San’s records being released by several labels at once, but especially with Arton till his contract with the CBS in the second half of the 1960s.

The album “Aris San – Sings 12 Mediterranean Hits” was released by Arton Records in 1963 which was a kind of manifesto of San’s put forth in the Israeli music market. Beginning with his first band in Israel, Avram Pengas also played guitar along with Aris San in Aris San’s various bands. By 1965 musicians like Avi Farin (drums) and saxophonist Albert Piamenta also took their places in Aris’ Band. The album named “To My Friends” which was released in 1966 was recorded with the above mentioned musicians plus Trio Atiko and Duo Seviliano.

“To My Friends” was the early milestone of Aris San’s transformation from being a laiko star to a surf rocker. This musical transformation rendered him unique for today’s audiences. San formed a rock’n’roll band having long since changed his main instrument from bouzouki to electric guitar. But his guitar did not sound mainstream in any way, but rather like an electric bouzouki, bringing him an audience of younger people, this being the age of Elvis Presley, The Shadows and rock & roll in general.

In this context, San’s new band-mates who previously played in surf rock and rock’n’roll bands in Israel played a critical role in his transformation. Moti Morad joined Aris as the bass player with his mate from his previous rock band Moshe Oralevich who played guitar. He never had a constant drummer, despite the presence of Avi Farin in many recording and live occasions. The band consisting of the trio Aris, Moti and Moshe lasted till 1988 with the vacillating drummers, keyboardists, and saxophone players.

San’s right handed technique was speedy and sharp and took much inspiration from surf music. While rocking in surf style he also explored eastern and Greek scales. The period of Aris San’s immigration to Israel coincides with a period in time when the West was curious about other parts of the World perceived as exotic. In this context, his unique guitar playing technique fitted well with the Zeitgeist.

This was also applicable to Omar Khourshid. San’s technique of maintaining a high pitched staccato mode that presented an amplified imitation of bouzouki would impress outstanding Mizrahi musicians, such as Moshe Ben Mush and Yehuda Keisar. In 1966 Aris San made a soundtrack for the film called Fortuna released, by Hed Arzi Records who also made a split single record with a singer named Judy in the same year. Aris also acted in the movie. Finally in 1967 Aris San made it big and released his first worldwide hit song Boumpam (also written as Boom Pa, Boom Pam etc.). The song was released by A.Z.R. records in Israel with a Pontus type of rock piece Paploma on the B side. Boom Pam was originally a Greek laiko song on which Aris, Moty and Moshe put their magic fingers, rendering the arrangement a perfect oriental surf song. The record was also released in France by Dounia Records. In “Boom Pam” he used the main theme of Enta Omry (Composer: Mohammed Abd el Wahab Interpreter: Omm Kholusoum) which was a taboo for Israel as it evoked Arabic music. What Aris San did was beyond the pale of the local musical market of Israel. The mainstream pop music market of Israel consisted of a type of pop performed by artists in military uniforms, and this lasted from the early 60s till almost 1973. San’s success with Boumpam automatically brought a contract with CBS, who soon realized that they had made he right decision. The next hit was also released in 1967: Sigal. The flip side was also a successful ballad of laiko with organ sounds: “Sounds Of The Night”

San’s “Sigal”, which was sung in Hebrew, stormed the musical charts of Israel and ushered in a new Mediterranean song form. While building up his career in Israel, Aliza Azikri also played a critical role for Aris and of course, the effect was mutual. In San’s career and his rising sympathy in Israel, Alize Azikri played a special role. One day Alize Azikri (her real name was Lucy Maloul) visited the Arianna Club with her husband and manager Nissim Azikri. After their acquaintance, a romantic relationship flared up between Aris and Alize which turned into a musical cooperation as well. San gave his song “Na’ara Mamash Otzar” to Aliza as a gift of their love and Aliza taught him Hebrew which opened the hearts of Israeli citizens to Aris. Aris began to compose songs or make versions of his songs in Hebrew with the support of Aliza, which increased his popularity even more in Israel. In 1967 Aris San’s orchestra recorded an album for Aliza Azikri named “A Girl Really Treasure” whose lyrics stemmed from Yehuda Ofen while the compositions, adaptations and orchestration belonged to Aris San.

In 1968 the album Aris was released on CBS. Although Moti and Moshe were in Aris’ band, Aris used studio musicians for his album as Moshe and Moty couldn’t read musical notes at that time.  Therefore the band that joined the recording session of the album consisted of Avram Pengas (guitar), Stew Cohen (bass), Avi Farin (drums) and Albert Piamenta (sax). The album “Aris” had many hits like “Achme”, “Tel Aviv”, “Im Ata Tsaeer Balev (If You Are Young At Heart)”, “Batayelet (On The Promenade)” and “Tavo Hayom”, “Tavo Machar” (Come Today, Come Tomorrow). The sound was beat, twist and mod-rock with a fusion of Spanish, Mizrahi, Greek influences. In the same year a singles collection named “Boumpam and Hit parade” was released by Kaliphone and more or less a similar singles collection album was also released by CBS.

Aris San performed Mizrahi (Oriental Jewish) songs which were also referred to as Mediterranean songs. When Aris first arrived in Israel, Mizrahi songs were not well known in the country. Aris San gained great popularity among the Mizrahi Jews who were settled in the Middle East beginning in Biblical times till the modern day. The boycott against Arabic music during the 6 Days War was only bypassed via the help of laiko music which was appreciated by Mizrahi society. Owing to the the facilitation of San, Mizrahi music which had many similarities with laiko became a mainstream music of 1970s.

Israel brought great fame to Aris. Especially “Boom Pam” (also the name of the psychedelic Israeli band of today. The band has projects with musicians such as Selda, Melike Şahin, Trifonas.), “Sigal” and “Dam Dam” achieved a respectable position in charts and also in the popular culture.

Nevertheless, Israel was not enough for Aris San, and in 1969 he first recorded an album in Greece with the name “Recorded in Greece”. In the same year, he released “Songs of The Mediterranean” with his trio consisting of Aris, Moshe, and Moti with some additional session musicians. In this album, the band explored the whole region including Turkey. They also recorded the hit song of Turkey “Samanyolu” (Milky Way) with the Hebrew lyrics as Dayag (Fisherman).

In 1969 they also toured Turkey as a trio and recorded a single in Turkish with an anonymous Turkish drummer. Right at that time he visited Turkey with his band and released a single from the label Disko where Antuan Shoriz was the producer. He performed his hit song Boom Pam with the lyrics of Ümit Yaşar Oğuzcan who was an acclaimed poet of Turkey. The Turkish version of the song was titled “Eğlen Oyna” (Have Fun and Dance). The flip side was Hayat Ne Güzeldir which was the Turkish version of his other hit Sigal.

During his days in Turkey, Aris San performed in İstanbul and İzmir. Moti Morad remembers that they had performed in Küçük Bebek Night Club in İstanbul. After Turkey, Aris San’s dreams of a better future and career led him to Mexico City and then to New York. In the USA Aris San’s band consisted of more or less of the Moshe, Moti, and Avi line up. Although Aris and the band moved to New York made their living in the USA, they preferred to make their recordings in Israel which is a proof that the spy conspiracy about Aris San has no basis of truth.

Aris opened his own night club called Sirocco. Sirocco became popular among celebrities such as Anthony Quinn, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Because of the popularity of the club, even an LP named “A Night at Sirocco Supper Club” which was formed of live recordings of Aris San and other artists of Sirocco was released. Although it was recorded in the early 70s, the LP was released in 1974 by Aris’ own label Ampis.

In 1970 he recorded an LP for CBS called “Sounds of Love” with the lyrics of Phytagoras the famous Greek lyricist. Although the album has an English title the songs have Greek lyrics and a laiko sound. In this album, he performed with session musicians. Afterwards, San founded his label in the USA named Ampis records and reissued “Sounds of Love” also with the label of Ampis Records. He recorded singles with the name “Aris San and his Group” and compiled them in an LP of the same name. The group is the fab 4 formed of Moshe, Moti, Avi, and Aris. The LP is probably dated as 1971.

In 1972 he released the LP Dam-Dam with CBS. The title track Dam Dam was a great oriental psychedelic hit which was first recorded in 1967 and re-recorded for the album with a much more rock arrangement like Mish Mash of Bob Azam which became a powerful rock piece. In 1974 the album “Dringi Dringi” was released. In this album, Aris San also played analogue synthesizers and Mellotrone on some tracks. The tracks like Ta Poulia (The Birds) and Yasas Vre Pedia (Hello Children) were psychedelic and hypnotic tracks, going beyond the usual night club fare.

In the same year maybe the most homogenised sound album of Aris San was also released. The album was named Album Seven, relying on a guitar quartet but also bouzouki, strings overdubs were welcome. Apparently, the album was a post- oriental surf declaration of Aris San. Afilotimi was a great opening piece in this album. It was followed by To Palikari with its strings supporting the guitar oriented rock band along with bouzouki. In Okutalyanos, Aris San makes the oriental surf great again and again, especially with his sliding solo that makes one hard to resist against dancing. Hopaa !

In 1975, Aris released his latest album for the 1970s which was called “Hits” in Hebrew. The album contained both current and past material. “Be’ezrat Hasehm, Ani Tzioni” (I am a Zionist) and “Kama Tov” were the new recordings. The new recordings were recorded with the classical Aris San Band and Aris also played synthesizer especially the strings synthesizers.

In 1976 he acted in the film “Voice in The Wind” (Kravges ston Anemo ) which was directed by Erricos Andreou. The musical scenes were shot in Sirocco Club and in a studio where he also made a duet with Stelios Kazantzidis. The song with the same title as the film was a Moog piece. Nevertheless, the soundtrack of the film was only released 4 years after the film (1980)with the name “Voice in The Wind” with the label Lion which was a sub-label of Hed Arzi. The tracks in the album were arranged by Albert Piamenta who was San’s sax player. The arrangements can be called progressive pop with a dominant usage of wind and string instruments.

For the first time, Aris San sang songs predominantly in English. The lyricist was Sid Wayne who had his signature in many songs in the American pop music industry including the ones of Billy May, The Platters, Eddie Fisher, Elvis Presley as composer and lyricist. On the other hand, the album also contained tracks from the original Aris San Band like Napas which is a great Greek oriental surf stuff.

In 1977 he appeared again in Israel TV from a live broadcasting from Hilton Hotel in Jerusalem. During the years till 1982 Aris San didn’t make any albums as he was only involved in Sirocco with exception of the release of Voice In The Wind LP in 1980.

In 1982 Sirocco was raided by FBI and a large amount of drugs were found on the premises. San was sentenced to 2 years prison due to his lack of co-operation with the FBI. Between the years of 1982-1984, Aris San was in prison. When he was released in 1984, he had already fallen into a large amount of debt.

He tried his hand at a couple business ventures including a club named Cosmico which lasted till 1989, but they all ended in financial failure. He went on performing in Jewish weddings to earn his living. Between 1984-1988 San played with his reunited old band with Moshe and Moti along with some other musicians. Sami Grumbly played guitar and Joanne (whose surname could not be recalled by Moti Morad) played drums in San’s new band. The band made a live album which was only released as cassette and then in CD form in 1987. The name of the album was “Aris San and Orchestra In New York” and it contained live performances probably recorded in Cosmico which was Aris’ next night club after Sirocco. The label was Dishi Productions this time which was the label of his manager Elias Dishi since the 1970s.

In 1988 San surprised his audiences and released a vinyl LP from CBS named “I Love You”. The album was not a piece of group music, on the contrary the album contained synthesizer and computer programmed sounds and fewer guitar and bouzouki parts. The only real welcome surprise is a piece Aris and his band recorded in 1985 named “תא הצצפ” (Eisai kanoni?) (Are you ok?) which was a great oriental surf piece with long guitar improvisations.

In 1988 Moti left Aris as things were not going as well as before and moved to Florida. Moshe stayed with Aris for some more time but as a result of his financial problems, and some other personal issues, Aris decided to move to Hungary. He performed music in Hungary; but as his financial  problems persisted he took to living in a neglected fashion in a run-down apartment, and in the end was fatally beaten up by unknown people who Aris probably loaned money from. Upon being transported to the hospital he died of a heart attack.

After his death on 25 July 1992 he was cremated and his ashes were transferred to New York, and were buried in a grave next to his good friend and colleague Louis Armstrong. But this grave didn’t solve the mystery about the death of Aris San and still to this day there are persistent urban legends that maintain Aris San faked his death in order to escape from certain individuals– legends like those that attended the death of Elvis Presley. Two documentary film makers named Dalia Mevorach and Dani Dothan followed the traces of his life and the death and directed a documentary called “The Mystery of Aris San” in 2008 in order to shed some light on the mysterious life of Aris San.

Aris San’s last album “Ta Telefea Tragoudia” was released posthumously in 1995. The recordings may have been done in the USA or Israel but the album was released by Hed-Arzi in Israel. The album is not a group album. Although Aris performs alone, his arrangements and performance are groovy and his guitar style is in between oriental-surf and rock guitar which reminds us of late works of Turkish psychedelic rock musician  Erkin Koray. He uses a high pitched staccato mode as well as fuzzy sounds and much longer guitar solo parts than in his modest “I Love You” album.

Aris San was not only a stunning musician but at the same time a perfect stage performer. He filled the stage with his charismatic presence and constantly beaming visage, sporting signature Clark Gable-style moustache and big glasses. This look was revised in the 1970s with the loss of moustache and the addition of a wig. Aris brought rock star charisma to a new born nation of migrants. Although his look seems kitschy by today’s standards, San made the Arianna Club something akin to a pagan temple.

This strange man with his unique musical persona and bizarre lifestyle is still at the center of attraction for a heterogeneous modern audience. A few years ago Fortuna Records made a 10 inch 45 rpm single of Aris San including “Boom Pam” and “Dam Dam”. In addition to this the music streaming platforms release his albums and almost all of them are covered by Spotify etc.. Aside from this there are his high priced original albums and singles.

This eclectic musician is awaiting the reissue of his albums and singles in vinyl format as well as the releasing of some unpublished material and more updated liner notes.

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