theguardian.com I vividly remember the first time I met Mohammad Reza Shajarian on a summer afternoon in Berlin in 2011. He was touring Europe, along with his daughter Mojgan and an ensemble of young musicians. For Iranians, this was – along with North America – the only place they could experience their great idol on stage, given that the outspoken maestro of Persian classical music had been banned from performing inside Iran two years earlier.Iranian singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian dies aged 80Read more
He entered the room with a soft demeanour, a little shy; throughout our interview, Shajarian would speak in a low tone so as not to strain his voice before the concert. I recall listening to his tender and remarkably colloquial Farsi, and being touched by his striking humility, even though he was by far the most popular artist of Persian classical music in our times. His death this week at 80 brings an illustrious career to an end.
I met Shajarian again in 2015, in Konya, Turkey, just a few hundred yards from the mausoleum of the 12th-century Sufi saint Jalaluddin Rumi, of whose poetry Shajarian was – along with the verses of Hafez – one of the finest musical interpreters.
Before his concert to mark Rumi’s birthday, which was to be Shajarian’s last public appearance, he already seemed quite frail. A few months later the singer announced he had had kidney cancer for the past 15 years. Shajarian shared with me his deep appreciation for the love and humanism in Rumi’s poems, which had made him accept the invitation to perform in Konya despite ill health.
During the concert in an overcrowded hall, Shajarian’s voice cracked a few times and didn’t go to the same old melodic heights. As a performer of the highest order he seemed discontented with his own performance, although he was cheered on by thousands of ecstatic Iranians who had poured across the border into Turkey to catch a glimpse of him. Many had to content themselves with watching the concert on a screen outside the building.
Shajarian was born in the east Iranian city of Mashhad. As a young boy he called attention to himself as a gifted reciter of the Qur’an, a tradition he had inherited from his father. Practising music as a performance art ran against the beliefs of his strictly religious family, so he conducted his studies of Persian vocals and the science of the classical radif system secretly.
He rose to fame in the 60s after performances on radio and state television, and soon came to embody the timeless beauty of Persian music and poetry during a period when Iran was going through political turmoil and revolutionary upheaval.
It was in Shajarian’s voice that the alchemical marriage of Persian mystical poetry and Iranian music tradition found its highest expression. Even before I learned Persian, Shajarian’s virtuosic voice had a great emotional versatility that never failed to transport me into celestial realms of beauty and harmony. Shajarian’s renditions of classical poetry also served to renew Iranians’ enthusiasm for their classical lyrical heritage.
While adhering to the almost religious norms of Persian musical scales as well as poetic rules of rhyme and metre, Shajarian also opened new paths by introducing fresh elements into Persian music. Although originally a solo performer, he experimented with a number of musical ensembles and invented new stringed instruments that found their way into his concerts.
Fans of Mohammad Reza Shajarian mourn in front of the Tehran hospital where he died. Photograph: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA
To Iranians inside Iran, Shajarian’s songs served as an anchor for their Persian identity and provided hope and solace in troubled times. Many Iranians have emotional memories attached to Shajarian – it is hard to find an Iranian who would not mark the holy month of Ramadan by listening to Shajarian’s famous rendition of the Arabic Rabbana prayer on breaking the fast.
“Shajarian’s voice is firm and solid, as if he embodies our ancient national epics. He is the last remnant of the golden age of Persian culture,” an Iranian friend once told me.
For Iranians abroad, Shajarian gave voice to the melancholy that comes with living in exile – not only physical exile, but also the existential inner exile of human beings, which is about living in separation from your innermost essence, a condition that Sufi poetry describes as the root of all human pain and suffering.
In the wake of the 2009 Green Movement election protests, Shajarian forbade Iranian broadcasting channels to play the songs he had recorded in the early days of the Islamic Revolution. When former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad labelled the defiant protesters as “dust and trash”, Shajarian reacted by calling himself “the voice of dust and trash”.
His outspokenness came at a price. Shajarian was swiftly banned from performing and recording in Iran. Even the iconic Rabbana was removed from the annual Ramadan programme. Although Shajarian continued to live in Tehran where he spent much of his time gardening – as he told me in 2016 – he had to fly to the US to record new music.
Even if censorship measures shook him to his core, Shajarian continued to show deep solidarity for the fate of the Iranian people, reflected in the words I recorded in 2011: “My music has always been entirely connected to what happens in Iran. The poems I choose to perform reflect our social history. My songs speak of people’s lives. I get my inspiration from the people. I need to be among them. Or else I wouldn’t be able to sing.”
When I asked him what was going on in his mind when he performed for his audiences, he said: “I think of people’s longings. Humanity should rule the world, not religion, nationalism or ideology. Humanity is the aim of all arts.”
• This article was updated with a correction: Shajarian’s final concert was in 2015, not 2016.