Mohammad Reza Shajarian, Iran’s legendary vocalist who died on 8 October, was revered for more than just his musical virtuosity. The master of Persian classical music and likely the most important musician of contemporary Iran, passed away at the age of eighty after fighting cancer for many years.
The crowds surrounding his hospital wept loudly and sang his songs in unison. A man who had climbed onto an ambulance yelled to enthusiastic applause: “Shajarian belongs to all the people of Iran. It is our right to have a majestic funeral for him. He is the Ferdowsi of our time,” referring to the revered tenth-century poet and author of the Shahnameh, the national epic of Greater Iran.
Shajarian did not receive the state funeral that he deserved. He was, however, buried next to the tomb of Abolqasem Ferdowsi in the ancient city of Tus, a fitting resting place. Like Ferdowsi, Shajarian was from the northeastern province of Khorasan, where Tus is situated. In an interview, he had once said: “Just as Ferdowsi saved our language, it is my obligation to save the country’s music.” Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh–penned in Persian–is often credited as a work of cultural defiance against the Arab conquest of Iran. With this comment Shajarian placed himself in line with Ferdowsi as a preservationist of Iranian culture in his own time within the context of a music-averse Islamic Republic.
But in reality, Shajarian considered his work–and the work of artists in general–as much more important than the mastery or preservation of their craft. For Shajarian, as he told me in a 2011 interview, the work of the artist was comparable to that of the clergy in that they needed to guide people in their immaterial needs. This obligation was even more pronounced after the revolution, Shajarian added, because the clergy had lost their place in people’s hearts by getting involved in matters of power and politics. When I pressed him, asking if he meant that the work of clergy and artists was the same, he said: “In effect yes, but we do it more beautifully, accompanied with music.”
It is no surprise that in the void of his loss many accorded to him the epithet, the “Voice of Iran.” He told me in the same interview, “There is injustice in society, and we need to speak out about these things because the artist is the voice of protest. We live among the people and from them we receive these messages and channel them.”
Becoming the "Voice of Iran"
For fifty years, Shajarian collaborated with the greatest practitioners of Persian classical music to create some of the most prized albums within the genre. In the process he not only popularized a music that was on decline in the 1970s, but also revived wide participation in Persian poetry through it. One could say, without exaggeration, that he facilitated an aural space for people to congregate and commune within the humanist tradition of Persian poetry.
While new state bodies banned other genres such as pop music for its perceived “Westoxification” and even curtailed kucheh-bazaari–a music literally of the “streets and bazaar” with sometimes louche lyrics about daily life and relations–they spared Persian classical music of their persecutorial wrath. This was in part because traditional music, as it’s also known, was regarded as a native form. But equally, it was because Shajarian and others within the Chavosh group in the late 1970s transformed Persian classical music into an engaged art that supported the people’s uprising, siding with the revolution over the Shah.
Shajarian had begun this work already before the revolution, when at the Shiraz Art Festival in 1977 he sang, “All night sleep doesn’t come to my eyes / O, you who are asleep/ In the desert those who are thirsty die/ While water is being carried to ostentatious palaces.” The lyrics commented on the disparity of wealth in Pahlavi-era Iran. When in September 1978 the Shah’s troops opened fire on demonstrators and killed nearly seventy people in a seminal revolutionary event named “Black Friday,” Shajarian and other members of the newly-founded Chavosh Culture and Art Society openly resigned from state radio and proceeded to make some of the most powerful songs of the revolution. Songs like “Razm-e Moshtarak” (Common Combat) and “Shabnavard” (Night Traveler) called on Iranians to “Join our path,” and urged “Give me my gun so I can get going / Because every lover is underway.” Others like “Sepideh” (Dawn) heralded the new horizon of a revolution where “from this bloody path / An auspicious sun arose.”
Still, even though Shajarian and the Chavosh group were credited for having supported the revolution with their music, officials at state media and other government bodies in charge of music and concert policy curtailed even their artistic freedoms. Once the war with Iraq began in September 1980, instrumental concerts were banned and Shajarian sank into silence for several years. But when he re-emerged, he kept a steady beat of subversive critique that over the years garnered him immense cross-generational support. In perhaps the most repressive post-revolutionary period, namely the mid-1980s when the country was embroiled in a devastating war and the new state was fighting off political subterfuge, Shajarian released his album “Bidad.” In it he laments, “This home was the land of the companions and the kindhearted / When did kindness end? What happened to the land of kings?” Conservatives in Iran’s Majles considered these pronouncements treasonous. The album’s record sales, however, showed its popularity among a people disillusioned by the revolution’s outcome.
And so, while Shajarian’s unparalleled mastery of Persian music partly explains his immense popularity, one has to look at his political trajectory over the decades to understand what made him “the voice of Iran.”
His signature song “Bird of Dawn”–a rhythmical classical piece–best encapsulates this. Whether he performed in Tehran or on the world’s most illustrious stages in London, Paris or New York, the audience always pleaded with him to sing this song as an encore. With his right hand on his heart, the iconic vocalist always obliged without hesitation, entering into what had become a ritual at his concerts. As Shajarian sang in his familiar plaintive tenor, he embodied the pained bird, dramatizing in music and verse the epic struggle of a people:
Bird of dawn, start your lament, relight my anguish
Break this cage with your scintillating sighs and turn it upside down
Wing-tied nightingale, emerge from the cage corner
And sing the song of human freedom
An enraptured audience always joined the prayerlike refrain, expressing their desire for freedom from tyranny:
O God, O Heavens, O Nature, turn our dark night into morning!
The poem on which the song is based dates to the 1920s, when Reza Pahlavi’s authoritarian takeover crushed Iranians’ hopes for representative government. Repression ensued, and the poem became a call to freedom. When Shajarian sang his lyrical version, fused in his voice were not only a storied musical and poetic tradition, but a century-long arc of a modern political struggle for freedom.
“Bird of Dawn” is emblematic of Shajarian’s critique at large, which was never too explicit. Couched in the idioms of Persian poetry, his music allowed for widespread participation without the fear of punitive repercussions. His concerts, once they resumed after the war, were some of the few public spaces where strangers could come together in large numbers and engage with each other in a critical discourse--both through the verses that Shajarian carefully chose, as well as through sheer support for his persona.
Shajarian was unable to perform in Iran for nearly a decade during the 1980s. He nevertheless gave performances for mostly diasporic audiences in Europe and the United States, comprised of Iranians who had left Iran because of the revolution or the war and who now formed a sizable population outside the country’s borders. The role of the diaspora and their media in providing a space for Shajarian’s creations played an important role in the growth of his popularity. The first time Shajarian performed “Bird of Dawn” was on his 1990 concert tour in the United States in commemoration of the song’s composer, Morteza Neydavudi, who had just passed away. These concerts were often taped and sold on the black market in Iran, circumventing the state’s permit structures. But unlike his year with Chavosh prior to the revolution, Shajarian was no longer an underground musician and always tried to obtain permits for these concert albums. When permits were denied, which happened every now and then, the diaspora-to-Iran-black-market feeding loop compensated.
For instance, in the mid-1990s, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance denied him a permit for the album Qasedak (Dandelion). In it, Shajarian sings a Sa’adi poem with the verses: “Those who say longing is haram / make longing haram, but the people’s blood halal.” The lines presumably criticized a culture within the Islamic Republic where love is punished but martyrdom is celebrated. This album was later published abroad and widely disseminated in Iran.
These are just a few examples of the ways in which Shajarian ruptured the official transcript. Shajarian’s permit fortunes ebbed and flowed with successive administrations. The somewhat stricter post-war years eventually gave way to Mohammad Khatami’s reformist government starting in 1997, during which Shajarian started to sing “Bird of Dawn” at his concerts in Iran, including at his 2000 concert “Bi to beh sar nemishavad” (It’s unbearable without you). At this concert–to give another example of non-state-conforming discourse–Shajarian sang these verses from Attar:
Today my Ka’ba is a brothel,
My fellow drinker is a judge and my cup-bearer an imam.
Come, come ‘Attar, who knows his inner self?
Who is the master, who is the wanderer?
An Air of Untouchability
Raised in a religious family in Mashhad, Shajarian was familiar with the clerical milieu. His father had trained him in the art of Qur’an recitation from a young age and by the time he was a tween, he was already a well-known qari. In the late 1950s the radio program “Golha” ignited his love for Persian classical music, an art form that is passed down from teacher to student by memory. Out of respect for his father, Shajarian pursued Persian classical music under the pseudonym “Siavash Bidkani” because, like many other religious people, his father didn’t believe music to be a righteous pursuit. Inadvertently, however, the elder Shajarian had given his son an early training in singing. The vocal techniques used for Qur’anic recitation are not far from those of āvāz, the art of classical vocals where instead of Arabic scripture Persian poetry is sung. His command of the Qur‘an, though no longer relevant to his work, had given him an air of authenticity and respectability across all sectors of Iranian society that very few singers wielded.
In an Islamic Republic where potent political dissent could land artists and writers in jail, this high status, his virtuosity as well as his revolutionary credentials bestowed Shajarian with an unparalleled air of untouchability. And he used this aura to speak for the people, all while insisting his work was not political, but rather “mardomi”–of the people. This puzzled all those who interviewed him, who kept pointing to the political nature of his oeuvre. When I pressed him in 2011, he said, “I try to move in the right direction.” He then added, “When you’re moving with the people your position is clear. …People know what they want but it is bad politics that positions itself against culture and against people for the benefit of power.”
His was a universal humanist message that superseded nitty-gritty politics and highlighted tolerance, justice and freedom. The fact that leaders from divergent political backgrounds such as Queen Farah Pahlavi, President Hasan Rowhani, and MKO leader Maryam Rajavi offered condolences perhaps affirms Shajarian’s insistence on the “mardomi” rather than “political” nature of his work.
Shajarian’s stance became more explicit in the last decade of his life. Following election unrest in 2009, commonly known as the Green Movement, which produced the biggest protest crowds since the 1979 revolution, re-elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad equated protestors to riffraff. The statement angered millions of people who had protested peacefully against what they claimed were rigged elections. Shajarian, who had appeared with his car among protestors and witnessed government violence against them, channeled their rage. In an interview with BBC Persian TV, he renewed a demand that he had stated repeatedly since the 1990s: that Iranian state television stop using his music for their political purposes. Referring to Ahmadinejad’s speech, a visibly shaken Shajarian declared:
“My voice is the voice of the riffraff and forever will be… Every time I hear my own voice on these media outlets, my body shakes and I feel shame… These songs, songs that I sang in the years 1978 and 1979, were for the uprising that people achieved then… But now I see that they are making a mockery of these songs before my face and others like me and the face of the people for whom I sang them.”
In the same year he released “Zaban-e Atash” (The Language of Fire) in support of the protestors, and urged the perpetrators of state violence to pursue a humane path:
Lay down your gun
Come, sit, talk, listen to words, maybe
The brightness of humanity opens a path in your heart
Even though Shajarian received nearly universal acclaim as a national treasure, hardliners started a campaign overnight to disgrace him, calling him a traitor and a peddler singer who had decided in his old age to sell himself to America. They banned all of his work from state media, including a highly evocative pre-iftar prayer called “Rabbana” (Our Lord) that had accompanied the breaking of the fast during Ramadan in Iran for decades. Understanding the spiritual importance of this piece, Shajarian had expressly allowed it to be broadcast on state media. Its elimination upset many people, who continued to play it on their own devices. When I asked him about this, he responded in his characteristic calm manner: “They think they are doing me harm, but they’re only doing themselves harm. They don’t even have enough social awareness to understand that you can’t take something away from people that they have connected with spiritually.” In the processions following his death, people often chanted, “Our national media, our disgrace,” in reference to state censorship of the vocalist.
Shajarian received his harshest punishment when, after his 2009 statements, he was prohibited from giving concerts in Iran. More than anything, Shajarian loved singing in his homeland to his people. Unlike other prominent persona who use their means and stature to emigrate, Shajarian never considered leaving Iran. He remained, even under severe pressures, and never gave up his claim to Iran as his homeland, in itself a political statement. This endeared him to his fans. They saw him as one of them.
When I asked him about performing in Iran, he said: “In Iran, it’s like you’re reminiscing and sharing secrets with people you’ve suffered with… we’re all in the same boat and we know what the words mean. In Iran it matters more, everything you say carries so much more weight.”
Over the last decade of his life, authorities denied him the space to commune with his audience in person. In 2014, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance stated that Shajarian had to redeem himself for past actions, adding, “It is not possible for someone to be extremely oppositional and critical, to not accept the ground rules and standards that pertain to the system, and still expect to work.” In one of his last public appearances in 2015 before his illness, Shajarian softly complained, after receiving an award to standing ovation, “I don’t have permission, I haven’t for a few years, to sing in my own country for my own people.”
And yet, Shajarian’s voice never stopped sounding in Iran’s aural public. His music was and is widely played in restaurants, stores, taxis, people’s homes, and is some of the most widely shared music on social media. He continues to guide through these recordings.
When Shajarian died, the kamancheh virtuoso and Shajarian collaborator Sohrab Pournazeri wrote, “Iran has become orphaned,” a phrase that was mirrored visually by thousands of people gathering in Tehran and Mashhad and weeping audibly. This is a precarious moment for Iran to lose its “voice.” Battling drastically deteriorating economic conditions due to extreme US sanctions and government corruption, as well as a pandemic which has to date taken at least 30,000 lives, Iranians are facing some of the most challenging conditions in recent memory.
More than any song, people have sung “Bird of Dawn” in commemorative gatherings around Iran. This song, a song that has become a kind of national anthem through Shajarian’s ritual performances over the decades, is perhaps needed now more than ever. After all, it holds the promise of a new day even from within the deepest darkness, a message that Iranians are struggling to hang on to.
 Interview with VOA Persian, 22 October 2011; see https://t.me/hafezeye_tarikhi/668
 See “Bidad-e Shajarian dar Majles,” 7 Aban 1394; https://faradeed.ir/fa/news/1459/بیداد-شجریان-در-مجلس
 I am indebted to Abbas Amanat for pointing me to this song, and for its translation.
 See “Shajarian bayad raftarha-ye gozashteh-ye khod-ra jobran konad,” 9 December 2014; http://www.bbc.com/persian/artsژ2014/12/141230_l51_ershad_shajarian