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Chop Suey!, by System of a Down

Those who only recognise the name Serj Tankian as a singer in the explosive, socio-political heavy rock band System of a Down may gravitate to this “memoir (of sorts)” because they want to hear tales of touring, decadence and the rock'n'roll life style.

Others might avoid it for the same reason.

Both parties will be surprised by this fascinating book because it largely avoids any of that: the band don't appear until a third the way through, Tankian was 27 when they formed.

But that's because there is so much more to tell.

Of Armenian background, born and raised in Beirut until he was seven when the family fled the civil war there, he grew up in Little Armenia in Los Angeles. The formative experience of his life was hearing the family's story of the Armenian Genocide during World War 1 when the Ottoman Turks undertook massacres of Armenians, a genocide which is still largely denied or ignored by Turks and the wider world.

For Tankian these events were as real as yesterday and shaped his political thinking: What does it mean to deny genocide and the calculated extermination of a people?

Tankian tells his family's story, of the civil war in Beirut which means “when I hear about some village in Myanmar or Artsakh or Afghanistan being bombed I can feel the terror somewhere deep in my core plucked like a tuning fork”.

As with many families finding themselves in a new land, the displaced family tried to fit in to America and for a while it worked out.

But unfortunate litigation crushed his father's business and the young Serj – studious, smart – spent hours wading through legal jargon to help out.

sjUniversity wasn't goofing off like his fellow students but reading, drawing attention to the Armenian Genocide at every opportunity, studying political science and graduating at 22 with a business degree to take a job working in his uncle's jewellery business.

He decided to take classes and become a lawyer, until he realised that wasn't what he wanted to do.

An Iron Maiden concert – a heavy genre far from his experience – planted a seed and for a couple of years he tried his hand on keyboards, writing, playing music with Armenian friends (always political) and, 100+ pages in here, System of a Down emerge.

By that time he'd been running his own successful business.

In these intelligent, readable and sometimes unnervingly candid pages, Tankian weaves between the necessity of political action, his fears and doubts about how far that should go, the discomforts of touring, working with Rick Rubin, finding a career outside System (no band shots appear among the photographs) as a composer of orchestral works, writing music for video games and films . . .

Along the way he meets with rock stars and political play-makers and – early on – confronts what it meant to be a political animal in the post 9/11 days when patriotism was rampant and a dissenting voice like his wasn't welcomed.

From bombs in Beirut to a Grammy win, journeys to Armenia to meet his heritage (and being befriended by the president) and living in New Zealand (“I finally felt like I was somewhere I belonged”) to astute and clear analyses of the international chess game that is current politics, Down with the System is a book which surprises at every turn.

You needn't have heard a note of System of a Down to be impressed by Tankian and this memoir.

But you'll certainly want to after reading it.



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