Shajarian & Persian traditional music

The legendary Iranian vocalist and composer, ostad (maestro) Mohammad Reza Shajarian has been a prominent name in the Persian traditional music scene since early 1960s. He is widely acknowledged as one of the best and most popular among Iranians. He has also received international awards and recognition, including UNESCO Golden Picasso Medal (1999) and Mozart medal (2006), and two Grammy Best World Music nominations (2004 and 2006).

As a child I remember my mom listening to him and watching his performances in TV. But not having any musical training nor any appreciation for it, that kind of music never really interested me in my years in Iran. In USA, especially in the East Coast and California, whenever I had the opportunity I saw the masters of traditional Persian music such as Shajarian, Mohammad Reza Lotfi, Shahram Nazeri, Hossein Alizadeh, Keyhan Kalhor, and numerous others.

Music in post-revolution Iran

The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) that got established after the 1979 revolution and has ruled Iran since, certainly has done a lot of damage to, among other things, the development of music in Iran. Shortly after the new regime got established, pop music and female singers were more or less banned. I remember the early days when the revolutionary forces would stop the cars in random check points and confiscate the music tapes and CDs and destroy them in the streets. Things have barely improved since in the past 30+ years.

Persian traditional musicians such as Shajarian were actually among the fortunate few who were allowed to sing and perform in the post-revolutionary Iran. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Shajarian and the like have had it easy. In fact, in the three decades Shajarian has only been able to do about a dozen public concerts in Iran even though he lives there! However, he has toured and performed internationally all these years. Though I am personally not a huge fan of his music in general (which I partially blame on my own musical illiteracy), he has had a number of remarkable works such as “Zemestan Ast” (“It’s winter”) with Alizadeh and Kalhor circa 1999 among others. Having his son, Homayoun Shajarian, perform with him as a vocalist for the first time in US, along with other masters, a few years ago also comes to mind as one of those memorable concerts.

Shajarian also has several beautiful and well-known songs that elude to the situation in Iran, such as “Ghasedak”, that was actually written and composed by another legendary figure in Persian traditional music, Parviz Meshkatian, composer and a virtuoso player of santur who often collaborated with Shajarian. Sadly Meshkatian passed away in 2009 at the age of 54. Another very popular song of Shajarian is “Morgh’e Sahar”, that speaks of yearning and hope for freedom, and when performed in concerts, it sounds like a national anthem, as many sing along. For example, see this live performance of “Morgh’e Sahar” in Iran along with his son from a 2008 concert. “Morgh’e Sahar” was actually written by ostad Morteza Neydavoud, yet another huge figure in the Persian traditional music in the 20th century, who passed away in 1990.

Shajarian & the green movement

Shajarian made the news on a different front last year after the uprising that followed the June 2009 presidential mis-election. When President Ahmadinejad insulted the people of Iran by referring to the protesters as “khas o khashak” (“dust and trash”), Shajarian said that he was and will always be “the voice of that dust and trash”. He also requested IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting) to stop broadcasting his music. They granted his wish but a state-sponsored paper called him a traitor. His song “Zaban’e Atash” (“Language of Fire”) that he released in late 2009, seems to explicitly speak to the government forces, asking them to lay down their guns.

He has now emerged as an outspoken critique of the regime. During his 2010 world tour, he had his daughter as a vocalist in the band who sings solo at times, which is against the IRI rules. Apparently the officials canceled his sold-out concert in Tabriz with the excuse of him having a female singer! He has also been quite vocal, giving interviews and openly speaking up against IRI. In a recent interview in Australia where he was touring, he asks for the separation of state and religion in Iran, because he says it has not worked. Now, that is a novel idea that has long been forgotten in Iran. Here is another good report on and interview with him from Australia. In this CNN interview he reflects some of the same sentiments. He says “art in essence is a form of protest”. He continues to say that when he looks back he realizes that he has not really felt happy in the past 30 years! “That bitter shadow has always bothered me”, he says. He’s clearly fed up.

Shajarian’s 2010 world tour with Shahnaz Ensemble

I had the opportunity to see his recent nearly sold-out concert with the Shahnaz Ensemble lead by Majid Derakhshani in the 6,300-seat Shrine auditorium in LA (see photo below). From a musical perspective there were a number of interesting, unique, and different things about this one. For starters, having a 15-17 person band in Persian traditional music is unusual and some traditionalists may not even like it. Given that this type of music is not usually performed to written notes and often involves improvisation, it makes sense to perform it with a small number of musicians. As I mentioned above, Shajarian also had a female singer, his own daughter, Mojgan Shajarian, who sang solo, which is quite unusual and against IRI’s rules. She also plays setar.

Shajarian with Shahnaz Ensemble, LA, May 2010

This concert also featured a number of new string instruments that are designed by Shajarian himself: Kereshmeh and Saghar from the lute family; Saboo, a bowed string instrument similar to violin, viola, or cello; Sorahi, another bowed instrument with several variations that sounds like bass; and Shahnavaz and Shahbang that is similar to sorahi. One of the issues with these new instruments is that, like most of their relatives, they still utilize animal skin which makes the sound of the instrument highly variable and dependent on the temperature, humidity and other environmental elements. Also, according to a musician friend each new instrument must have its own techniques which must be devised along with the instrument. I am not sure how much of this work has been done on these new instruments.

Persian traditional music purists may even object to these variations or deviations from the traditional and standard forms of the instruments that have been played for hundreds of years. In fact according to one musician friend, no one else could get away with this other than ostad Shajarian himself. Well, I say more power to him. We should embrace change and innovation. One of the things that I liked about this concert was that because of large number of musicians and these new instruments, it sounded somewhat different from the typical Persian traditional music.

This concert also featured a few young virtually unknown musicians, that is atypical. Shajarian can have the best perform with him; and typically he does. But I think this is a good change. He has the means to provide an opportunity to the underdog and young musicians to get to play with the best around the world. It must be a big thrill and a huge opportunity for them. I think this shows his generosity. Also in terms of mastering the new instruments, the younger musicians who are not yet fully set in their ways and instruments, are best to experiment with new ideas and techniques and innovate.

Shajarian is certainly commendable for the mastery of his art and his dedication to the Persian traditional music for half a century. But it is the humanity of his art that makes him remarkable. His words against the cruel regime while still living in Iran (that many would not dare utter), and his cries for justice, freedom and peace for the people of Iran, provide a ray of hope for Iranians all over and make him a strong voice (in more ways than one) that cannot be ignored. May the change that he’s calling for, come and come soon.

Acknowledgments: I’d like to thank my professional musician friends and performing artists, Pezhham Akhavass, a renowned percussionist and a master of tombak and daf, and Laya Etemadi, award winning violinist who also plays kamancheh and viola, for providing me with valuable input while I was researching and writing this article.

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