Mohammad Reza Shajarian, a master of traditional Iranian music hailed as one of NPR’s 50 Great Voices of all Time, died at age 80 on Thursday afternoon in Tehran.
Four years earlier, he had appeared in front of the cameras for the last time, announcing that he had had kidney cancer for 15 years.
Minutes after his death was “announced outside Iran,” and confirmed by his son on Instagram, thousands of people gathered in front of Tehran’s Jam hospital where he died and chanted slogans against Iran’s monopolized radio and television organization, Seda va Sima (Voice and Vision.)
“Shame on you, Seda va Sima,” mourning people chanted.
Since the people’s uprising against the 2009 presidential election’s controversial outcome, Seda va Sima had banned broadcasting anything related to Shajarian.
Reacting to a comment made by the official winner of the election in which the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called protesters “scum” and “trash,'” Shajarian famously claimed, “My voice is the voice of the scum, and will be forever.”
Shajarian also wrote a letter to Seda va Sima and asked the network to stop broadcasting his patriotic songs, lest some interpreted it as his support for the clergy-dominated political establishment in Iran.
In June 2009, he told BBC Persian, “Every time I hear my own voice on this media, my body shakes, and I feel ashamed … These songs that I sang in 1979 and 1980 were for the uprising that the people made, it was for that movement, but now I see they [the government] are making a mockery of these songs in my face and others like me, and the face of the people for whom I sing.”
However, dedicating two of his prayer/songs (Rabbana and Afshari Prayers) to the people of Iran, Shajarian permitted the Seda va Sima to carry on broadcasting them.
Nonetheless, the state-run radio and television decided to ban all songs and prayers by the maestro.
For some three decades, Iranians looked forward to hearing the prayer during Ramadan. For those who were fasting, his most famous song, “Rabbana,” signaled the time to break their day-long fast and begin the iftar.
Many Iranians, including some fundamentalists, still say they miss Shajarian’s “divine” Rabbana prayer during Ramadan.
“It has such power, and the power of it has virtually nothing to do with the words,” Iranian American scholar, Abbas Milani, told NPR in September 2010.
“When I still hear it, I get a chill to my bone and think that this is not the voice of a mere mortal — this is the gods speaking to us,” Milani said.
Shajarian has been the most famous and popular singer of all social classes in Iran for more than four decades. However, after 2009, he was banned from performing inside Iran.
Four years ago, in a video addressed to the people of Iran, he disclosed that he had cancer and should stay out of sight for a while to pursue treatment.
Ultimately, on Sunday, he was transferred to the intensive care unit of Tehran Jam Hospital due to a drop in consciousness close to a coma, and finally died on the afternoon of October 7, 17 days after he turned 80 years old.
Shajarian was born in 1940 in the Iranian city of Mashhad, in the country’s northeastern province of Khorasan. Beginning at age five, he learned Qur’anic recitation from his father.
As he told NPR’s Morning Edition in 2010, his father was very conservative and religious — and considered any music that wasn’t Qur’anic recitation haram or forbidden. But his uncle was a music lover and encouraged him to explore Persian classical and folk music.
Two of the recordings he released in the United States as a member of the group Masters of Persian Music were nominated for Grammy Awards: 2002’s “Without You” and 2005’s “Faryad.”
In 1999, UNESCO awarded him its Picasso Medal; in 2014, France named him a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. Last year, the Aga Khan Music Awards gave him a special Patron’s Award.
His popularity among the Persian music lovers was so great that even the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani praised him in a tweet on Thursday.
“Certainly, the grateful nation of Iran will always keep the name, memory, and works of this popular artist alive in our memories,” Rouhani tweeted, adding that Mr. Shajarian left “a valuable legacy.”
The body of the late maestro is scheduled to be buried in the city of Tous, near Mashhad, at the mausoleum of one of the greatest Iranian poets, Ferdowsi (c. 940-1020).