is I remember very well the first time I met Mohammad Reza Shajarian on a summer afternoon in Berlin in 2011. He was on tour in Europe, with his daughter Mojgan and an ensemble of young musicians. For the Iranians, this was – along with North America – the only place they could discover their great idol on stage, given that the Frankish maestro of Persian classical music had been banned from performing in Iran two years more. early.
He entered the room with a gentle air, a little shy; throughout our interview, Shajarian spoke in a low voice so as not to strain his voice before the concert. I remember listening to his tender and remarkably familiar Farsi, and being touched by his striking humility, even though he was by far the most popular artist in Persian classical music in our time. His death this week at age 80 puts an end to an illustrious career.
I met Shajarian again in 2015, in Konya, Turkey, a few hundred yards from the 12th century Sufi saint Jalaluddin Rumi’s mausoleum, whose poetry Shajarian was – along with Hafez’s verses – one of the best performers. musical.
Before his concert to mark Rumi’s birthday, which was to be Shajarian’s last public appearance, he already looked quite frail. A few months later, the singer announced that he had had kidney cancer for 15 years. Shajarian shared with me his deep appreciation for the love and humanism of Rumi’s poems, which made him accept the invitation to perform in Konya despite poor health.
During the concert in a crowded hall, Shajarian’s voice cracked a few times and did not reach the same melodic pitches. As an artist of the highest level, he seemed unhappy with his own performance, although he was cheered by thousands of ecstatic Iranians who had crossed 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 city of Mashhad, in eastern Iran. As a young boy, he drew attention to himself as a gifted reciter of the Quran, a tradition he had inherited from his father. The practice of music as a performance art went against the beliefs of his strictly religious family, so he studied Persian song and the science of classical. radif system secretly.
He rose to fame in the 1960s after performances on state radio and television, and soon came to epitomize the timeless beauty of Persian music and poetry at a time when Iran was going through turmoil. political and revolutionary upheavals.
It is in Shajarian’s voice that the alchemical marriage of Persian mystical poetry and Iranian musical tradition found its highest expression. Even before learning Persian, Shajarian’s virtuoso voice had a great emotional versatility that never failed to transport me to the heavenly realms of beauty and harmony. Shajarian’s interpretations 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 the poetic rules of rhyme and meter, Shajarian also opened up new avenues by introducing new elements into Persian music. Although originally a solo artist, he experimented with a number of musical ensembles and invented new stringed instruments which found their way into his concerts.
For Iranians inside Iran, Shajarian songs have served as an anchor of their Persian identity and have provided hope and comfort in these troubled times. Many Iranians have emotional memories attached to Shajarian – it’s hard to find an Iranian who wouldn’t mark the holy month of Ramadan by listening to Shajarian’s famous interpretation of the Arab Rabbana prayer on breaking the fast.
“Shajarian’s voice is firm and solid, as if he embodied our ancient national epics. It is the last vestige of the golden age of Persian culture, ”an Iranian friend once told me.
For Iranians abroad, Shajarian expressed the melancholy that comes with living in exile – not only physical exile, but also the existential inner exile of human beings, which involves living in separation from your most essence. intimate, a condition that Sufi poetry describes as the root of all human pain and suffering.
Following the 2009 Green Movement election protests, Shajarian banned Iranian broadcasters from playing songs he recorded at the start of the Islamic Revolution. When former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the rebel protesters “dust and garbage”, Shajarian responded by calling himself “the voice of dust and garbage”.
His outspokenness came at a price. Shajarian was quickly banned from performing and recording in Iran. Even the iconic Rabbana has been removed from the annual Ramadan program. Although Shajarian continued to live in Tehran where he spent a lot of his time gardening – as he told me in 2016 – he had to travel to the United States to record new music.
Even though the censorship measures shook him deeply, Shajarian continued to show deep solidarity for the plight of the Iranian people, as evidenced by the words I recorded in 2011: “My music has always been entirely linked to what is happening. going to Iran. The poems that I choose to play reflect our social history. My songs are about people’s lives. I take my inspiration from people. I need to be among them. Otherwise, I couldn’t sing.
When I asked him what was going on in his head when he was performing for his audience, he said, “I think about people’s wishes. Humanity should rule the world, not religion, nationalism or ideology. Humanity is the goal of all the arts.
• This article has been updated with a correction: Shajarian’s last concert was in 2015, not 2016.