By Julie Corwin in Washington
What if the Beatles had been Armenian? The four young men of Armenian descent who comprise the Los Angeles-based hard rock band, System of a Down, play music that sounds nothing like the Fab Four. It's more raucous and harsh, but like the Beatles, they have managed to create a sound that is immediately recognizable as their own. And, like the Beatles, they are experiencing extensive commercial and critical success.
Last year, System of a Down was the first band to have two original albums debut as number one in a single year since the Beatles, according to their record company. And, they won a Grammy award for best hard rock performance and the MTV Europe award for best alternative group. That kind of success opens doors everywhere -- including the U.S. capital.
The band’s lead singer Serj Tankian is in Washington to help the annual lobbying effort to get the U.S. Congress to recognize as genocide the slaughter of an estimated 1 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1923. So far, only a few governments and national parliaments have recognized Armenia’s genocide claims. Those include France, Russia, Lebanon, Uruguay, Switzerland, Greece, and Canada.
Usually, System of a Down holds a benefit concert in Los Angeles around April 25 to raise funds for the effort to officially recognize the massacre as genocide. This year, they decided to head to east. "We thought it would make a stronger impact to come here with the resolutions going through the House [of Representatives], you know and try to, try to let Dennis know that we're still here and we want him to do the right thing and bring up the vote in Congress on the Armenian genocide resolution," says Tankian.
"Dennis" is Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Last year, Tankian and drummer John Dolmayan flew to Hastert's home district in the Midwestern state of Illinois to participate in a rally to pressure Hastert to honor his pledge to allow a full vote on legislation to recognize the massacre of Armenians as genocide.
Tankian contends his band is no more political than its musical contemporaries. The current environment, he says, has encouraged a blossoming of politicized content: "I think we have as many political bands as we did in the '60s now and that's pretty interesting. Like I said that's mostly a reaction to current policies and injustice that exists in terms of foreign policy."
If political lyrics are commonplace these days, what makes System of a Down different is its commitment to Armenia. So far, the group lacks concrete plans to tour Armenia or other countries in the region, although Tankian says he raised the possibility with Armenia's foreign minister last year during a trip to Yerevan.
Local Armenian bands gave Tankian their "demo tapes" during that trip. He liked what he heard, and his own record label is producing an album by a U.S.-based Armenian band, Slow Motion Rain, this year.
Tankian declined to weigh in on the recent controversy over Armenia's song for the Eurovision song contest in May, but he approves the choice of singer, Andre: "I don't know if I've heard that song. He did give me his CD [compact disc] when I met him in Armenia and I did listen to it and I think he is a good pop singer -- a romantic type of singer."
Andre has listed himself as a native of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-controlled enclave inside Azerbaijan that has been the object of fighting between the two countries. The Azerbaijan government says Andre should identify himself as from Azerbaijan or drop Nagorno-Karabakh from his biography.
Tankian follows political events in Armenia and the region. He'd like to see more stress placed on the development of positive social norms, such as a "sense of fairness, understanding and camaraderie.” Nevertheless, he does see positive trends in politics in Armenia and in Ukraine. "The Soviet system has left a very bad taste in a lot of the, you know, post -- the republics of the Soviet Union in terms of the structural, the hierarchy in the way that corruption kind of persists,” he says. “And a lot of it is changing and I see that and I'm very encouraged by that -- not just in Armenia -- but in Ukraine and everywhere."
Tankian acknowledges that he has only a partial understanding of what life is like for Armenians in Armenia. After all, he was born in Lebanon and grew up in the Los Angeles area along with fellow band members. But his commitment to his grandfather's homeland remains strong.
(AP-Photolur photo: U.S. Senator Wayne Allard, left, greets Serj Tankian, right, and John Dolmayan on Capitol Hill Wednesday.)