When I set out on a three-week bicycle journey last month, my setar teacher Hossein suggested I carry my instrument along and practice on the road, so I wouldn't fall behind with our lessons. When I told him that wouldn't be possible, he advised me to listen to Shajarian's album Cheshme-ye Noosh instead. Immersing myself into this masterpiece in the rast panjgah mode would keep my ear accustomed to the tunes we had practiced the previous months.
I downloaded the album onto my phone and listened to it almost every day of my journey. As I pedalled across the vast expanses of Anatolia, Shajarian's warm melancholic voice turned into a perfect soundtrack for my adventure. However, often the noise of trucks and cars would stop me from perceiving the finer nuances of his music. It wasn't until I cycled through the silence of the Taurus Mountains that I became more sensitive to the subtle call-and-response interplay between Shajarian's voice and Mohammad Reza Lotfi's tar (Shajarian's very popular namesake artist passed away in 2014) .
On one of the last days of my trip I learnt that Shajarian had passed away in Tehran at the age of eighty. Immediately, memories of our two encounters came to my mind.
I vividly remember the first time I met Mohammad Reza Shajarian on a Berlin summer afternoon in 2011. He was touring Europe then, 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 maestro of Persian classical music had been banned from performing inside Iran two years earlier.
With a soft demeanour he entered the room. The ostad wore a suit coat and seemed almost 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, being touched by his humility – although he was, in the Persian classical music genre, by far the most outstanding artist of our times.
It is hard for a non-Iranian to grasp the importance of Shajarian for Iranian culture in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Owing to his artistic greatness, Shajarian's fans hailed from all segments of Iranian society, no matter which religious or political views they held. That alone is remarkable in a society which otherwise tends to be highly divided.
Most of our first conversation in 2011 was political, because the shadow which the events of 2009 cast on Shajarian's creative work was still very palpable. Moreover, this aspect was what my German editors were after.
What had happened? In the wake of the 2009 election protests that came to be known as the "Green Movement," Shajarian forbade Iranian broadcasting channels to play the songs he had recorded in the early days of the Islamic Revolution. When then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad labelled defiant protestors as "dust and trash," Shajarian reacted by calling himself the "voice of dust and trash."
His outspokenness came at a price: He was banned from performing and recording in Iran. Not being able to sing in his beloved homeland pained him (in fact it was only now on the occasion of his death – after 11 years – that Iranian state TV played his music again). I could see that pain on Shajarian's face when he told me:
"Our Iran is not what the government claims it is. Our people are entirely different from our government."
He went on:
"Actually, this difference is really striking. That's why we can observe a big conflict between the people and the government at the moment."
When I asked him if he considered his singing political, Shajarian responded:
"My music was always fully related to events in Iran. My choice of poems actually mirrors our social history. They reflect politics, while not directly pointing at it. My songs deal with people's lives. I must be with people and I receive inspiration from them. Otherwise, I would not be able to sing."
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. His father was a man of high ethical standards who planted seeds of compassion in the young boy:
"My father always considered God. He used to tell me that one should respect people's rights and he acted accordingly. Because I grew up like that, I was very careful not to harm anyone's rights and to act in a way that others would be pleased with me. That's why my school friends never saw me do anything that would upset them. I never quarreled with anybody. With increasing life experience I saw that I needed to live for other humans. Throughout my life I would always be happy when others are happy. If someone was upset and cried, I would also start to cry myself. This is not in my hands."
With increasing life experience I saw that I needed to live for other humans. Throughout my life I would always be happy when others are happy.
As an aspiring musician, young Shajarian also had to face some rigidity in his strictly religious family. Although his maternal grandfather and uncles played instruments, practicing music as a performance art ran against the convictions of his conservative Shi'ite father. In consequence, Shajarian pursued his studies of Persian vocals and the science of the classical radif system secretly.
Shajarian rose to fame in the 1960s after initial appearances on "Radio Khorasan" and later on state television. He soon came to embody the timeless beauty of Persian music and poetry during a time when Iran was going through political turmoil and revolutionary frenzy. In the period of the Islamic Revolution some of his songs echoed the enthusiasm of change and upheaval which – as it is often the case with revolutions – soon turned into profound desillusionment.
Even before I learned Persian, Shajarian's virtuosic voice that was of great emotional versatility never failed to transport me into celestial realms of beauty and harmony. It was in Shajarian's voice that the alchemical marriage of Persian mystical poetry and the Iranian music tradition found its highest expression.
Shajarian's renditions of poetry – particularly the verses of classical poets like Sa'adi, Hafez, Rumi and Omar Khayyam, but also some contemporary poets such as Akhavan Sales – served to keep Iranians' deep love for their lyrical heritage fresh and alive.
Indeed, 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 recital of the Arabic "Rabbana" prayer upon breaking the fast (although even that prayer had been removed from public broadcasting during the years of Shajarian's banishment in Iran).
While adhering to the almost religious norms of Persian musical scales, Shajarian also proved an openness for 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 which found their way into his concerts.
In September 2015, I met Shajarian once again. Our second conversation took place in Konya, just a few hundred yards from the mausoleum of Rumi. It was a meaningful place to be talking to Shajarian who had travelled across the border to give a concert on the occasion of Rumi's birthday. Nobody knew that this was going to be Shajarian's last appearance on stage.
He already seemed quite frail. One of his close friends present in Konya told me that he hardly accepted to meet any journalists at this point, so I had to be very grateful for being given ninety minutes of his time. Now I realize that I was the last foreign journalist to ever speak to Shajarian.
In the four years since our meeting in Berlin, I had learnt Farsi and studied Persian culture. This time my questions would be different from our first interview. When I asked him about the unique relationship of music and poetry in Iranian culture, he responded:
"Poetry and music are like to wings of one culture. Music is a language in itself. In reality, it is beyond language. Music has no limits. Each kind of music is a huge world in itself. Our poetry has emerged out of music and therefore it needs music."
"For me, singing reflects the messages delivered from the unseen realm of existence. The universe is moving on and we are all a part of it. In my voice I express what human beings love and desire to achieve. When these messages are sang in the form of a poem, they produce a stronger effect on the listener, whether it be a social poem, a love poem, a mystical poem or a protest poem. As a singer [...] I convey the emotional state of each poem."
We also talked about Rumi's famous ney metaphor – the reed flute that first needs to be emptied so the divine breath can stream through it and produce a beautiful sound. Shajarian told me that it was similar with a singer:
"When the voice comes out of a singer, his character also comes out with it. If the singer's heart is full of selfishness and resentment, his voice will be annoying. But the voice of a singer who lives for other human beings – in a spiritual way – is familiar to the heart."
The voice of a singer who lives for other human beings – in a spiritual way – is familiar to the heart.
When I asked him what he thought about the modern educational systems which often lacked that spiritual element, he responded:
"[In today's world] many factors have caused everyone to think only about themselves. Everyone wants to first save themselves. In my own country, I see this to such a great extent that sometimes I get frustrated. I ask myself why humans have become like this. It has happened all over the world. People only consider their own interests. This destroys all human relationships.
"Everything that occurs in society also quickly affects the music scene. Many of our artists have become aggressive and protesting. This is the effect the environment has had on them, that is, they have been deprived of peace and can no longer think easily. Competition in our music has also increased. But art is not supposed to be that way. Art is something else. It is a path that gives peace to people, and creates friendship and love between them."
"Imagine you were able to travel in time and meet one of Iran's classical poets. Which one would you choose?," I asked him.
Without even thinking for a second, he exclaimed: "Hafez!"
"Why?," I asked.
"Because I love his world, his morals, his independence, his humanism. He is a stark opponent of hypocrisy, lies and pretense. Many people sing Hafez, but they don't know Hafez himself. [Throughout my life] I have reflected on and paid special attention to Hafez' poems."
During the Konya concert that took place in a totally 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 discontent with his own performance, although being cheered on by thousands of ecstatic Iranians who had poured across the border into neighbouring Turkey to catch a glimpse of him. Many had to content themselves with watching the concert on a screen outside the building.
A few months after the final Konya concert Shajarian announced that he had been battling kidney cancer for the past 15 years. Until his death he was not able to perform in Iran again. If he wanted to record new music he had to travel to the US. In Tehran he spent most of his free time building new instruments or tending his garden. Back in 2015, he told me:
"Nature is my real mother. Actually it is the real mother of us all, and I love that mother very much. I try to always stay in touch with her and learn something from her."
Nature is my real mother. I try to always stay in touch with her and learn something from her.
Shajarian's death on October 8th after his prolonged illness was not suprising. Nevertheless, it sent a wave of grief and pain across Iran – in a year that had already been unusually tough and included having to tackle the worst corona outbreak in the Middle East amidst crippling sanctions imposed by the Trump government; not to mention people's profound discontent with the country's political and economic state of affairs.
In all of this, Shajarian's voice has been a refuge, a reminder of divine beauty amidst man-made ugliness. To Iranians inside Iran, Shajarian's songs have served as an anchor for their Persian identity. His voice has and will continue to provide solace and stability.
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 one's innermost essence, a condition which Sufi poetry describes as the root of all human pain and suffering.
I always felt that the moment Shajarian entered stage, his personality would become eclipsed by a much larger presence. He turned into a pure channel for his divinely inspired art. When I asked him during our first meeting what went on in his mind as he sang for his audiences, he responded:
"I think of people's longings. Humanity should rule the world, not religion, nationalism or ideology. Humanity is the aim of all arts."
Shajarian was an ostād in the real sense of the word. He was not only a "master" of his vocal craft, but his personality reflected a deep sense of humanism that touched all who came into his presence.
Note: Part of this text is taken from a shorter piece I wrote for the Guardian: Mohammad Reza Shajarian embodied the timeless beauty of Persian music