In the concert hall of Tehran’s National University, a sold-out audience waited for the musicians to take their place on the stage. Not only was every seat occupied, but there were throngs of young people around, lending the whole event the air of a rock concert. An outside observer might have been surprised, therefore, to learn this was not a rock concert at all, but one for traditional Persian music, played with antique-looking instruments.
But then, this was no ordinary time. It was December 1979, less than a year after the victory of the Islamic Revolution. In those heady days, Iranian arts and culture still had a mass following. Before long, it would be repressed to an unprecedented degree by the newly-founded Islamic Republic.
On the stage stood singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian, relatively young at 39 – or at least, by the usual grey-haired standards of traditional Iranian musicians.
“Oh Iran, land of hope,” Shajarian thundered. “A new morning has dawned on you.”
The words were those of Houshang Ebtehaj, a poet with close ties to the communist Tudeh Party. The Persian ballad behind them was played by Mohammadreza Lotfi, another leftist, who was there onstage with his long-necked six-stringed lute: the Iranian tar. The fabled instrument of santur was played by Pashang Kamkar, a Kurdish musician and one of the dozen Kamkars who together formed a large musical family. Two more of the Kamkars, Bijan and Arjang, were also right there on the same stage, respectively playing the Afghan lute-like rubab and the tonbak: the eternally popular goblet drum of Persian percussion music.
The concert had been organized by pro-Tudeh Party students, and it showed. The halls were filled with socialist slogans. Ebtehaj’s lyrics, sang masterfully by Shajarian, hammered their principles home: “Our path is the path of truth, the path of happiness; unity is the secret to victory.”
The concert soon became a legendary event, discussed and recalled by thousands. Ebtehaj’s son had happened to record it and it was later distributed in the form of a cassette album, called Dawn. Unbeknownst to himself, Shajarian had become the voice of the revolution.
He hated it. His love was for music and not politics. He didn’t share Ebtehaj’s communism and hadn’t known who had organized the concert, and was so angry at being associated with Tudeh that he subsequently left the spotlight for three years. In the stormy days of the revolution, Shajarian preferred to stay at home, mastering the art he had dedicated his life to.
On a trip to Moscow, Shajarian visited the great pro-Tudeh poet, Siavash Kasrai: an old friend, some of whose poems he had sung. Kasrai’s disillusionment with the Soviet Union affected Shajarian. “These bastards lied to us all,” was the message Kasrai asked Shajarian to convey to Ebtehaj and his other comrades in Iran. In 2016, he said: “I didn’t want to enter political parties and politics. I want to be an artist, to work for people and tell people the truth.”
When he passed away yesterday, at the age of 80 in Tehran’s Jam hospital, Shajarian had established himself as Iran’s most important living artist. Not only he was considered to be a true maestro of Iranian music, but he had become a national icon: a rare emblem of the unity beloved by Iranians across all the lines that divided them. He had also become a bitter and vociferous opponent of the Islamic Republic, having come to find that an aversion to politics was not an option in the conditions of his country.
No surprise, then, that riot police descended on supporters who were gathered in front of the hospital today, to commemorate Shajarian, and to call out a slogan he had once proudly chanted on the streets of Tehran himself: Death to the Dictator.
His body was taken to the northeastern province of Razavi Khorasan, centuries-old home of some of the finest Iranian musical talent. He will be buried near the city of Mashhad, next to Ferdowsi: the great Iranian poet of 11th century.
Mohammad Reza Shajarian was born in 1940 in Mashhad. Like many Iranians of his age, the first strains of music came into his life from the Qur’anic recitals of his father, who was one of the best reciters in town. He was six when he started learning the Quran’s beautiful Arabic verses and to the end of his days, he never lost his love for vocal renditions of the Qur’an. In 1979, just a few months before that heady concert in Tehran, Shajarian had traveled to Malaysia for an international Qur’anic recital contest, where he won yet another award. A number of verses he had recorded shortly after the Islamic Revolution, collectively known as Rabanaa (Our God), had formerly been a mainstay on Iranian television, broadcast to millions every year during the holy month of Ramadan. All over Iran, wherever you went to break your fast after a whole day without food or water, the sound of Shajarian’s Quran recital was there to give you life.
In the years before any of this, before he’d become a household name, Shajarian had still had to work hard for a living. In 1952, Khorasan’s local radio broadcast his Qur’anic recitals for the first time. He was 12 years old. But a few years later, when he tried getting a job singing for the radio, they told him he was no good.
He therefore struck out for a typical career for the intellectually-minded middle classes of those days: teaching. Entering Mashhad’s Teachers’ College in 1959, Shajarian would go on to travel the province, spending a number of years teaching in the small village of Radkan in Razavi Khorasan’s Chenaran County. Radkan today remembers Shajarian’s presence there with pride. Not since the grand Seljuk vizier of 11th century, Nizam al-Mulk, had the small village been associated with such a famous son. In 1961, Shajarian married a fellow teacher, Farkhonde Golafshan, with whom he went on to have three daughters and a son.
But his love of music did not leave him. Transferred in the late 1960s to Tehran as a civil servant for Natural Resources Ministry, he connected with the old masters of Iranian music and did his best to learn from them. His principal tutor and the man he proudly called his “father in music” was Ahmad Ebadi, sage of three-stringed Iranian lute or sitar. Born in 1906, Ebadi belonged to a different era; his disciplines included Gholamhossein Banan, the most famous traditional music singer of the previous age. His father and grandfather were the grand masters of Iranian lute instruments, and founders of the organized bastions of Iranian traditional music during the Qajar era. Shajarian had found the right master. Soon he’d be on the radio himself, using the nickname Siavash.
This period was key to his development as a future Persian maestro. If Shajarian did one thing well, it was his channeling of the best of previous generations, and carrying them forward into a new age.
He had enviable venues for such work. In 1968, Iran’s Center for Preservation and Propagation of Music (CPSM) had been founded as an adjunct to the TV broadcaster. The CPSM worked to prevent the extinction of traditional Iranian music, most of whose guardians were then in their twilight years. It connected these ailing old masters to a rising generation of artists, Shajarian among them.
Shajarian made history when he sang a traditional Persian ballad based on the poem of Darwag by Nima Youshij, the father of new the Iranian free verse. The music was composed by Lotfi in the model of the Persian ballad known as tasnif, a genre that Shajarian then disliked with a passion but of which he would later become a major practitioner. During this period he also famously collaborated with the progressive poet Ahmad Shamlou on an album based on the quatrains of medieval Khorasani polymath Omar Khayyam.
In the amazing Iran of 1970s, in the bloom of arts and culture despite the constraints on freedom of speech, Shajarian and his friends breathed new life into traditional music. The art of the old masters of the Qajar courts was now available to the masses. At the Art Festival of Shiraz in 1977, which took place near the shrine of the fourteenth-century master sonnetist Hafiz, the sight of Shajarian and Lotfi sitting on the ground, bereft of the usual suit and tie and with their unconventionally long beards, was broadcast on national television, denoting a new age: or the reconfiguration of an older one.
While many of his friends were preoccupied by politics, Shajarian remained laser-focused on his art. But politics wouldn’t leave him alone. Iran was in turmoil, and no one – not even a musician – could sit on the sidelines. In the fall of 1978, together with Ebtehaj and Lotfi, Shajarian was preparing for a journey to Moscow to attend a grand concert of Iranian music. But when, on September 8, the army of the Shah opened fire on peaceful demonstrators and killed at least 100 civilians, the trio cancelled their trip. They had to stand side by side with their people. Together they founded the Chavush Association, which brought them together with the Kurdish Kamkars and other talented lights of the CPSM. It was this organization that was behind the Tehran National University concert of 1979.
Following the break with Chavush and three years of sitting on the fence, Shajarian returned to public and musical life in 1982, when he collaborated with composer and santur master Parviz Meshkatian in a concert at the Italian embassy. A fellow Khorasani, Meshkatian became a close partner of Shajarian in this period, not least when he married the singer’s daughter. The collapse of this marriage would later play a role in the unfortunate split between the two.
In the mid- to late 1980s, as Iran was rife with repression and deprivation in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war, Shajarian toured Western Europe and the United States, producing music of unparalleled quality. Boston, Paris and Rome became the stages upon which Iranian music now shone. Shajarian was still trying to shun politics, and once even shut down a concert in Stockholm when supporters of the opposition tried to take it over. Sticking to music in those hard days, he was seen both in Iran and among the increasing number of diaspora as an artistic chevalier, keeping the lights of art on in some of Iran’s darkest days.
At a concert in Berkeley in 1990, Shajarian performed an old progressive tasnif called Morning Bird. First performed in 1927, the classic song of struggle in defense of the ideas of the 1906 Constitutional Revolution has been covered by dozens of musicians down the decades. It is a testament to Shajarian’s place in Iranian music that the song, though, has now become synonymous with him, and with his own, masterful version.
In 2009, as the streets of Iran erupted into demonstrations following the disputed presidential election outcome, Shajarian was seen driving along in his car, joining the popular chorus: “Death to the Dictator”. In an angry letter to the head of the Iranian state broadcaster, Ezatollah Zarghami, he asked for them to stop playing his “Oh, Iran”. The song, he said, belonged to the years of 1979 to 1980 and not to the repressive Islamic Republic of 2009. The broadcaster responded by cutting not only this but Shajarian’s Rabaana Ramadan prayer recital. For the first time in more than 30 years, Shajarian’s Quran recital no longer greeted the devout at their fasting tables.
Shajarian would go on to further his association with the popular movement against dictatorship in Iran. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad compared the people to “rubbish”, Shajarian told the BBC’s Persian service: “My voice has no place with the state broadcaster. My voice is that of rubbish and it will forever remain so.”
He spent some of his final decades at his second home in Vancouver, Canada, along with the graphic designer Katayoon Khansari, whom he had married in 1992 when he was 53 and she 26 years old. His fourth child, Ryan, was born in Vancouver in 1997.
In a recorded Persian New Year message in March 2016, Shajarian shocked Iranians by speaking of a disease he had been living with for a long time. His shaved head alone made it obvious: kidney cancer. The outpouring of grief and support, both among the cultural elite and ordinary Iranians, was once again testament the unparalleled place Shajarian occupies in contemporary Iran. His final years fighting cancer were thus also the ones in which he lived to see the legacy he had built through a decades-long devotion to art.
Mohammad Reza Shajarian is survived by his four children, two of whom, Homayuon and Mojgan, are musicians in their own right – and by about half a dozen musical instruments he himself invented. A street in Tehran was named after him in 2019. According to a Stanford scholar, Abbas Milani, who broke his silence only today, Shajarian had also helped draft a transitional constitution for a new, democratic Iran, to be published only after his death. In the end, the maestro who didn’t like politics wished to see an Iran in which artists could work free of political repression.