The Ongoing Influence and Mystery of Aris San

February 13, 2017

By Steve Frangos,

Aristides Saisanas offers us a fine example of how the history of Greek music since 1880, while widely described in the world’s popular press, sees little serious study. The chronological history of Modern Greek music, in general, is over-shadowed by the seemingly endless attention given to a single genre of Greek music, rebetiko. Yet, the history of modern Greek music is more far complex and influential than is now allowed.

On January 19, 1940, Aristides Saisanas was born in Kalamata, Greece. At the age of 17, Saisanas, sailed to Israel (following a woman that proved to be married!) where, once he arrived, the young Greek shortening his name to “Aris San” and almost immediately started working in Greek taverns, singing and playing the electric guitar under the name Brian. In time San began performing at the Arianna nightclub in Jaffa, a bastion of Israelis from Thessaloniki singing in Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian and English. San is credited with not only showcasing the bouzouki but is also cited as one of the first to use electric guitar in a Greek music setting. San became an Israeli citizen and went on to become co-owner of four nightclubs. Within five years San was the biggest megastar within the firmament of Israeli entertainment.

In, Popular Music and National Culture in Israel, by Motti Regev and Edwin Seroussi, we hear this detailed description of San’s life and influence up to his leaving Israel:

“The status of popular Eastern music changed dramatically in the 1960s, with the eruption of the “Greek” wave of popular music in Israel. “Greek popular music” in this context should be understood as the sound of hybrid nightclub music styles from Athens and Thessaloniki, generally referred to as laika. A dominant feature of this sound is the presence of the bouzouki. This type of Greek music became a favorite style for Israeli born Eastern Jews as well as for many non-Easterners. This wave is particularly connected to the rise to stardom of Greek singer Aris San. A seventeen-year-old non-Jew from Thessaloniki, San began to frequent Israel after 1956 and to appear in clubs in the port city of Haifa, which was populated by many Jews of Greek origin. Following a love affair with an Israeli girl, San settled in Israel and began to appear at the main venue of Greek music in Israel, the Arianna nightclub in Jaffa, owned by Shmuel Barzilay, a Thessalonian Jew. General Moshe Dayan, at the peak of his political power and popularity in the 1960s, is said to have been a fan of Aris San and even to have intervened to formalize the singer’s legal status (Ewing, NJ, USA: University of California Press, 2004. p 200-1.).”

Aris San’s success and that of other contemporary Greek singers who landed in Israel was not absolutely a novelty the presence of Greek popular music in Israel predated his arrival. Nightclubs in Jaffa, such as Arianna, regularly hosted live Greek music and musicians in the 1950s.
Aris San was especially popular among the Mizrahi Jews. These individuals are Jews descended from local Jewish communities of the Middle East from biblical times into the modern. One may hypothesize that the success of Greek music of the laika style among Mizrahi Jews was their way of eluding the quasi boycott of Israeli public culture on Arab music. Sometimes similar in sound and affective appeal, Greek laika music provided a legitimate way to publicly enjoy the type of sounds beloved by Jews from Arab countries.

In the 1970s, individuals who became the major producers of musiqa mizrahit e.g., the music of the the Mizrahi Jews were exposed to the music of these clubs in their youth and became avid consumers of it. Consequently, the “Greek sound” became one of the main stylistic inspirations of musiqa mizrahit.

San’s influence on later musiqa mizrahit cannot be overestimated. One pivotal element was his use of the electric guitar in a high-pitched staccato mode, as an amplified imitation of the sound of the bouzouki. The sound was later copied and became a signature sound of leading musiqa mizrahit tar players such as Moshe Ben Mush and Yehuda Keisar. The song “Boumpam” (in Greek), a huge hit for San in Israel, is exemplary here. In addition to a long guitar solo, the song also includes a short quote from Um Kulthum’s song “Enta Omry” (composed by Mohammed Abd el Wahab), hinting at the proximity to Arab music that his work contained.

San’s hit songs in Hebrew, such as “Sigal,” conquered the charts in the 1960s, paving the way in the Israeli public to a new “Mediterranean” sound. San’s songs were simple and light, in sharp contrast with the patriotic content of many popular songs produced during the same period, in the aftermath of the Six-Day War (1967). In terms of melody, “Sigal” is based on a few two-bar motifs repeated in sequence. The minor scale in the verses is not melancholic, as is the case in many mainstream Israeli songs, and the contrasting beginning of the refrain in major sets the spirit of the entire song. Its “Greekness” rests mainly on the sweeping instrumental introduction by San on the bouzouki.
‘…By the early 1970s, San’s songs became part of mainstream Israeli popular music. Five of his songs are included in the printed collection Lehitim bo`arim together with popular songs by leading Israeli composers such as Moshe Vilensky, Dov Seltzer, and Nurit Hirsh (Ewing, NJ, USA: University of California Press, 2004).”

Lucy Maloul, a singer known professionally as Aliza Azikri, visited the Arianna,club with her manager/husband Nissim Azikri. A romantic relationship developed between Ari San and Azikri. They had a daughter, Sani. San wrote songs for Azikri (Bahayim hakol over, Yesh ahava ata omer) that opened Israeli society to Greek and Mizrahi music. San left Israel a few months after the birth of his daughter on Yom Kippur eve.

In 1969, Aris San went to New York opened “Sirocco,” his own bar-restaurant where he played Greek music to great success. Fame also brought the mafia and drugs into his life and later on the FBI which tried to trap the head of mafia through him. San who did not cooperate with the investigation, was convicted and imprisoned for two years. Various accounts claim once San got out of prison he opened another nightclub, which was unsuccessful.

In 1992, San went to Hungary to work, and under what are called, “mysterious circumstances” he had an accident. Such was the severity of this undescribed accident San’s health deteriorated and he passed away. His remains were cremated. A final flourish to this tale is the claim that his ashes were returned to New York and buried next to Louis Armstrong.

Aris San’s musical popularity has never waned. In 2008, a documentary on San’s life, “The Mysterious Aris San” was released by directors: Dalia Mevorach & Dani Dothan (Elil Communication) but even their extensive investigations could not solve or even shed new light on what had happened to this man in Hungary. Aris San’s influence on modern Israeli music is clear. What has yet to be determined are San’s wider enduring musical influences and the full extent of his ongoing listening audience.

Steve Frangos, c. 2017

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