Tributes have poured in from across the globe and Iranians descended to the streets to bid farewell to Mohammad Reza Shajarian, the Persian master vocalist, who died on Thursday at the age of 80. In a special post for IranWire, Firouz Farzani pays tribute to the iconic singer and outspoken voice of a generation.
On Thursday the legendary Iranian singer, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, was finally beaten by the cancer he had battled for the past two decades. For four years, he had been shuttled between his home and hospitals both in Iran and abroad, determined to stay alive. Now, aged 80, he has passed away in Jam Hospital in Tehran.
As I write this, his fans have gathered outside the hospital. Some are crying out anti-regime slogans and there have been clashes with the police. How did Shajarian, the embodiment of Iran’s most deep-rooted traditional music and poetry, become a symbol of resistance against the ruling theocracy?
As a boy in Mashad, Shajarian had begun singing in order to recite the Quran. He was admitted as a student to the Iranian Center for the Preservation and Propagation of Traditional Music, which is affiliated with state-run radio and television networks.
But Shajarian was an artist with a political soul. Like so many other young people in 1960s Iran, he supported calls for an end to the corruption of the Shah’s rule and for social and political reform. Along with the classic poetry of Hafez, Saeedi, Rumi and Attar, he sang overtly revolutionary lyrics written by Sayeh and Kasrai: two poets long associated with the Tudeh socialist wing of the revolution.
As a young man, Shajarian never dreamed that the hard-line Islamist agitators – the same fanatics who would later ban his universally-loved music – would take over and then ruthlessly consolidate their power. Briefly in the aftermath, the unthinkable became law. Musicians and singers were banned from performing in public or even in private homes. Possessing a musical instrument was a crime for which musicians could be jailed and flogged.
Ironically, Shajarian’s career was revived by war. Khomeini discovered music was a powerful motivator for the millions of young men on their way to fight against Iraq. Sonorous, mystic music. Music with a martial beat. Shajarian was a master of the genre and received special permission to record. His songs were aired on the radio, and Shajarian’s tar (lute) player, Mohammad Reza Lotfi, even travelled to the front line to boost soldiers’ morale.
Shajarian’s powerful voice also became a mainstay during the holy month of Ramadan. State radio aired Shajarian’s a capella interpretation of the prayer “O God, soften our hearts and forgive our sins...” every day before sunset during the fasting period.
But the Islamic Republic of Iran continued to have an uneasy relationship with music. It barred Shajarian from giving live performances at home, so he went on the road and staged concerts for adoring crowds in Europe, Canada and the US instead. Inside Iran, even while muzzled, he was the nation’s most popular singer thanks to the recording company he set up, which distributed his music on cassette tapes. It turned out he had a flair for business, and managed to collect his own royalty payments – a first in a country where state officials and well-connected middlemen normally siphon off the lion’s share of the profits.
Shajarian’s great turning point came in 2009. When furious crowds poured into the streets to protest the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he stunned the country by taking their side. The regime abruptly removed him from the airwaves during Ramadan.
Shajarian was not cowed. A video surfaced of him driving his car while shouting out the most radical slogan of the day: “Death to the dictator!”. This act of defiance saw him banned completely from all state-run television and radio. Shajarian was officially out in the cold.
All the while, the Persian maestro was ill with kidney cancer – or, as he poetically put it, his “unwanted guest” – and agents of the government kept up the pressure on him not to perform, even in private. He didn’t buckle. This aging singer, whose roots lay deep in tradition, never stopped criticizing the ruling establishment on the channels he knew would infuriate them most, such as the BBC’s Persian Service.
It is late now, and there’s a candlelight vigil in the side streets next to Jam Hospital. Police are trying to disperse the crowd of fans and mourners, and his son is offering what comfort he can with a pledge that though Shajarian suffered injustice in life, he will be honoured in death: buried in Mashad next to a colossus of Iran's poetic tradition, Ferdowsi.