Waking up the Souls: Rocking with System of a Down in Armenia

by Stu O'Brien

A System of a Down concert in Armenia, the band’s ancestral homeland, is a raucous reminder of the country’s turbulent past. This story was selected as a finalist in the Soundtrack of Travel writing competition.

“Ca-a-a-an… yo-o-u-u… feel their haunting presence?”

The soulful opening line, from System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian, echoes throughout Yerevan’s Republic Square. Tens of thousands of fans sing in unison, lifting his heartfelt words toward the heavens. Rising from the embers of a century-long fire, his words are carried aloft, swirling upwards. They want them to resonate up there. They want them to soar. They want to wake up the souls. As the drizzling rain intensifies, it feels as if the heavens are responding. The brooding clouds that gathered throughout the day have unleashed. The disparate crowd of patriotic Armenians, heavy metal fans, and travelers from across the Caucasus relish in the deluge, unperturbed. The rain has not quelled their enthusiasm nor diminished their numbers. After all, defiance is a theme for tonight.

Penned for the exiled Mt Ararat, there is another haunting presence in Yerevan Square this evening, and it is personal. It is personal for the four men on stage and for many in the crowd. As Serj intones those opening lines, many will feel the haunting presence of their ancestors. The souls of their grandparents and great grandparents, of great aunties and uncles. The souls of Medz Yeghern, the Great Crime, the Armenian Genocide. The souls, whose legacies have been carried by survivors, who one hundred years earlier found refuge in this same square. Those souls could not have dreamed of such an event when they arrived scarred, beaten, and starved. These are the souls that Serj, Daron, Shavo, and John have come to awaken.

“Liar! Killer! Demon!” roars Serj, and in true System of a Down style, the band launches from a poignant tug at the heartstrings to a passionate ignition of rage. The crowd chants together, “Liar! Killer! Demon!” They swing back again moments later, and a joyful chorus of FREE-EE-EE-EE-DOM reverberates through the crowd.

In April 2015 Armenians are free once again. Their homeland is emerging from another long, bitter winter, and the colors of spring are in bloom. Leafless trees sprout buds of pink and white, and virescent fields break out across the countryside. In Alaverdi, an overnight town south of the Georgian border, the Debed River gorges on the melting snow. It churns and rumbles under stone footbridges, splashing its white water against levies and barriers. The region’s monasteries, constructed of centuries old stone, glow in the springtime sun, resolute and glorious. In Yerevan, a three-hour journey by marshrutka (minivan taxi), urban parklands are spotted with dazzling palettes of budding tulips, and the five petalled purple forget-me-nots are abundant. A symbol of the commemoration, they are pinned to clothing, posted in shop windows, and decorate the city in places where the hammer and sickle once flapped. The ubiquity of the forget-me-nots is a solemn reminder of the remembrances taking place and has subdued the usual joy at the changing of the seasons. Armenians are not one to squander their freedom though, and there is an air of anticipation in the city. In the days leading up to the commemoration, there is an influx of political leaders and dignitaries, returning diaspora, and a waggle of Kardashians.

Freedom, in this corner of the world, is hard won and often fleeting. A century earlier Yerevan emerged from the ashes of the First World War and the collapsed Ottoman Empire as the capital of independent Armenia. Its people survived centuries of dispersal and persecution, culminating in the first genocide of the 20th century. As Armenians began their long march for recognition, the Soviet Red Army invaded, snatching freedom from their grasp once again. It would take another 70 years for freedom to return.

Republic Square, the heart of modern Yerevan, resembles a construction zone. Scaffolding is growing higher by the day, and barriers guard light towers and giant screens. In the streets of the capital, convoys of black cars appear randomly, with tinted windows and police escorts. Inside could be Putin, or Hollande, or Komorowski of Poland. Or it may be their secretaries, reveling in a brief moment of importance. Each evening, crowds flock to Republic Square to hear the singing fountains. Installed by the Soviets in the 1960s, the fountains spray and sway to the rhythm of classical melodies or pop music. Young lovers stroll hand in hand, dazzled children point excitedly, and an old man shuffles along, invisible to much of the crowd. Meanwhile, at the entrance to the Marriott Hotel, teenage girls hover, phones at the ready, hoping for a glimpse of their botoxed idols. Rumors abound that the Kardashians have booked out the entire top floor, yet nobody knows whether they have arrived. The crowd erupts into a high pitched frenzy anytime a shadow appears in a window. K’imn e?! K’imn e?! K’vort’ni? It may be Kim, Kourtney, or even Kanye, or it may be a maid, reveling in her brief moment of celebrity.

Away from the hubbub of Republic Square, the quieter corners of Yerevan offer a deeper view into Armenian culture. At the statue of Martiros Saryan, the father of Armenian painting, amateur artists display their work. Shaded by elms, pagodas and decorated with blooming sakuras, the park is emblematic of the regreening of Yerevan after significant deforestation in the 1990s. Under the leafy canopy, impressionists sit alongside abstracts and landscapes, accompanied by realists and portraits. An exploding pomegranate bursts into view, announcing itself from the conglomeration of styles. Its torn flesh and splattered juice is jarring, unnerving. Its seeds lay scattered across the canvas. A reflection, perhaps, of the Armenian people. The image is beautiful yet disturbing. There is a haunting presence about it. For Armenians, though, the pomegranate is a symbol of prosperity, abundance, and fertility. It is used in cooking and wine making and immortalized on canvas and in film. The sweet, modest fruit is intertwined with its people. It is plentiful in daily life and essential in marking occasions. At weddings, smashed pomegranates invoke hopes of children and protection from the evil eye. What appears haunting is instead hopeful. The artist has captured the moment with a skillful hand and careful eye. The intersection of obliteration and optimism.

In the darkness and through driving rain, another artist whispers, “Elimination. Elimination. Elimination.” After their first intermission, System of a Down launches into P.L.U.C.K., their most overt song regarding the genocide. “Recognition, restoration, reparation,” chants Serj to the upbeat strumming of Daron, “We’ve taken all your shit, now it’s time for restitution!” P.L.U.C.K. is followed by Sardarabad, an Armenian folk song. While defiance is a theme for tonight, pride is also a regularly channeled emotion, and thousands of patriotic Armenian voices reverberate through Republic Square. The power of music, of art, is on full display and resounding at full volume. The cameras pan the crowd, and the giant screens display faces wrenched with emotion, tears flowing for those lost souls. Armenian flags wave proudly, defiantly, allied by Poles, Ukrainians, French, Czechs, Russians. This is Yerevan and Armenia at its electric best.

System of a Down finishes their marathon 37 song set with two of their biggest hits, Toxicity and Sugar, referenced as Shakar for the evening. The manic two and a half minute meld of jazz-metal-ska sends the crowd into a frenzy and is one last opportunity to dance, sing, or headbang in the rain, which has not abated all night. “In the end it all goes away, in the end it all goes away, in the end it all goes away, in the end it all goes away,” Serj repeats before waving to the crowd and uttering an understated, “Wow.”

The four men then come together. John walks from behind his drum set, and Daron and Serj put down their guitars. They embrace center stage, and for that moment cease to be System of a Down, the international superstars who have sold millions of albums and changed the face of popular rock music. Instead, they are Serj, Daron, Shavo, and John, four men whose grandparents survived the Armenian genocide, and four men who have played their part in honoring their memory and the memory of all who suffered through Medz Yerghan. They have come to wake up the souls, and everybody here can attest that they succeeded.

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