Ancestral Sounds

Photo by Ari Michelson

Some musical collaborations are best left unexamined. And when a duo like Serart goes into the studio for only six days (because “true and spontaneous stuff shouldn’t take so long”) and comes out with an almost wordless and completely improvised album incorporating every sound from man, machine and nature, it’s easy to think less and listen more. Such is the wish of Serart’s founders, Serj Tankian and Arto Tuncboyaciyan (pronounced Tunk-boy-a-jian) — the former the head metalhead in System of a Down, the latter a Turkish-born multigenre multi-instrumentalist. What do the two have musically in common? Other than a shared Armenian heritage, not a blessed thing.

Even if you’ve never been Downsized, you’ll know Serj when you hear him, ’cause he’s louder than loud on the loudest loud-o-meter. Take, for example, the way he politely asks, “Why the fuck did you take him away from us you motherfuckaaaaaah/Fuckaaaaaah/Fuckaaaaaah?” on System’s “Soil,” making Roger Daltrey’s exit on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” sound like a morning yawn. Or “Chic ’N’ Stu” from Steal This Album!, where he shrieks something about “Wanted pizza pie/Pizza pizza pie/Every minute, every second/Buybuybuybuybuy.” Sounds exactly like it reads. He can also cluck like a chicken, tongue-twist all Tourette’s-like, and then in the same song sing softly in a pleading hush as if to shush the noise he just made. It’s like having the boogeyman and your mommy read you a bedtime story.

Somewhere in America over the past 20 years, Tuncboyaciyan has been building a not-so-deafening repertoire as a self-described “avant-garde folk” singer and musician — hand drums, duduk (Armenian oboe), saz (long-neck lute), glass bottles, etc. He’s collaborated with everyone from oud player Ara Dinkjian to Chet Baker and Arthur Blythe, and even the taiko [drum] group Kodo, as well as on film soundtracks including Atom Egoyan’s Ararat. His more steady job is with his own 12-member Armenian Navy Band, whose New Apricot and Bzdik Zinvor (Young Soldier) are grab bags of jazz- and funk-fueled Middle Eastern–melodied goodies. (Not so good, however, is the lack of distribution that makes these albums hard to find.) During one of his performances at Glendale Community College’s auditorium last year, he wowed a tiny crowd with his elaborate drum set, and at the 2001 Armenian Music Awards in Glendale he banged on a white pot and had the audience sing back in gibberish.

It was a similar performance at the 2000 AMAs that caught System’s ear, and soon Tuncboyaciyan was off lending his talents on the band’s Toxicity and Steal This Album! (that’s him with his faux flute on “Science” and duking it out with Tankian on “Bubbles”). The juices kept flowing between Serj and Arto, and out squirted Serart (which means “love of art” or “art of love” and is also the combined abbreviation of their first names), recently released on Tankian’s own year-old, four-band-strong label, Serjical Strike/Columbia.

Tankian, his head a riot of Cosmo Kramer curls, sits down outside his label’s offices in Santa Monica to explain how, with no recipe in mind, he and Tuncboyaciyan simply threw pasta at the wall and hoped it would stick. “Everything we did was very in-the-moment and completely unthought-of,” he says. “I had no idea of what I was gonna do or what he was gonna do. There was no premeditated decision to do anything.” What winds up on your plate is 16 globally warming, percussion-heavy and avant-everything tracks. “It’s all over the place in a sense that you can’t really pinpoint what the lyrics are, what language it is. It’s multicultural and multigenre.”

Since blowing on glass bottles is Tuncboyaciyan’s specialty (he could squeeze a tune out of rocks), Serart is about the marriage of ambient sounds with what those sounds resemble when played on traditional or unidentifiable instruments. Water trickles with softly strummed guitar on “Black Melon”; a blast of gunfire introduces the brief, wailing and appropriately titled “Love Is the Peace”; while rolling dice and chirping birds provide background chatter to the electronic-beat-driven “Narina,” with some pretty Dido-ish vocals courtesy of singer Jenna Ross. But it’s “Zumba,” a bum rush of crazy-paced stop-’n’-go percussion, that’s one of the album’s best, and shortest at just under a minute.

Though it boasts the usual influences from the big A’s — Arabic, African and Asian, as well as Armenian — Serart is not a “world” album. “Writing the music is what I’m surviving, it’s the sounds of my life,” Tuncboyaciyan explains in careful, soft-spoken English via phone from his current home in New Jersey. “I’m not sitting down creating compositions. I use the instrument as a tool, not the foundation of the creativity. That’s what I call avant-garde folk. I don’t think I’m crossing any cultures, but if something is affecting me, I’m using that with my experiences without losing who I am.”

Although Tuncboyaciyan’s vocal style is drawn from Armenian and Anatolian (Turkish) tradition, it’s completely freeform and lacks a specific language. “Somebody once said to me, ‘Take it out of your spirit to make sure it’s not gonna harm anybody,’” he says. “I’m simple like water, but also I’m deep like water. I don’t speak correct English, I don’t speak correct Armenian, I don’t speak correct Turkish. Nothing. Most important is how I can bring the meaning with the sound of the syllables I find.” Simply put, if it sounds somber or joyous, then just go with it. Like the way the jubilant chorus on the wonderfully tribal “Devil’s Wedding” makes you wanna jump in and sing or hum or mumble along. Or the way “If You Can Catch Me” feels like being in a noisy marketplace of a thousand tongues bargaining for cheap goods. “When he sings, he hits that chord that resonates in me, maybe even unconsciously, somewhere really deep, somewhere ancestrally,” says Tankian. “It’s singing in its purest form.”


“Arto’s voice is very honest, and it comes from an indigenous setting,” adds Tankian. “And you can’t be more honest than an indigenous sound, whether you’re Native American, or Aborigine, or Maori or anything. All indigenous cultures had the same source of religion, because they were all nature-based. They lived their lives in accordance with the laws of nature and not the laws of man, like we do in modern civilization. That’s why everyone can relate to it.”

That’s Serj the sage for you, which makes it all the more surprising that in Serart he brings his intensity down a notch or 10 and is content with displaying his softer side, especially on the spoken-word “Claustrophobia,” one of the few songs with lyrics (“As long as there’s a maze the mouse will prevail/But when enclosed and bordered my health will fail”). “The challenge is not the lack of words,” he says. “The challenge is explaining how the lack of words is more of a necessity to musical culture than the piling of them. Lyrics are overrated, words are overrated.” Okay, now he’s gone too far — these words come from a man who not only fronts one of hard rock’s best sociopolitical mouthpieces, but who also recently published a book of poetry and co-founded the nonprofit Axis of Justice with that other delegate of the downtrodden, Audioslave’s Tom Morello. (Listen for their regular music-’n’-more program on KPFK.)

With all of the album’s complicated instrumentation and Serj’s plate-spinning, Serart won’t be heard live anytime soon. The two would rather have the music marinate in the hearts of listeners, so when they do hit the stage, you can wail and chant along with Arto and really know what he is or isn’t saying.

Arto Tuncboyaciyan performs at “World Music Night,” co-hosted by John Densmore, at the Actors’ Gang on Sunday, July 13.

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