Master Of Persian Music Protests With Song

During a tour of Europe last year, Iran’s undisputed master of Persian classical music performed a song with a distinctly modern theme – “Brotherhood in Arms” – calling on Iranians to unite.

The song is one of several composed by Mohammad Reza Shajarian that criticize the Iranian government’s brutal crackdown after disputed presidential elections last year. Tens of thousands of Iranians, among them many artists, have fled the country to avoid imprisonment and even execution.

But political repression also leads to a flowering of the arts, Shajarian said.

“Arts is the language of protest,” Shajarian, 69, said in Lebanon, where he recently performed. “The enemy became a blessing. That is, arts grow when there are pressures, political suffocation and tyranny.”

Persian music dates back to at least the 7th century A.D., when it was restricted to royal courts. By the 20th century, it was performed at small gatherings at the homes of musicians and patrons of the arts. However, it went into decline after the 1960s, giving way to pop music.

During the early days of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Shajarian sang in support of the movement that toppled Iran’s last monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – something that has until today associated him with the clerical regime. But he denied having had any close links with the revolution or its leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He also denied ever singing for Khomeini.

“I was never interested in getting involved in politics. … I didn’t like politicians. … I was never a member or a supporter of a political party. … But when the revolution happened we were unwittingly taken by the wave,” said Shajarian.

Photo: AP Photo
And his wife Katty, smile during an interview with The Associated Press in Beirut, Lebanon.

After the revolution, there was a reawakening of classical music, most notably thanks to Shajarian’s efforts. Seven months after the triumph of the revolution on Feb. 11, 1979, Shajarian quit working for state radio and TV, began teaching and put his efforts into improving classical music. Once again it became popular, taught in classes and played at concerts.

Despite widely held views, the Islamic republic was not responsible for the growth of Iranian arts, Shajarian said. Over the past 30 years, he said, clerical rulers have failed to build even a single concert hall to accommodate 3,000 to 4,000 people – an odd shortage in a city of 15 million like Tehran with a strong arts tradition. Instead, concerts are held in sports stadiums and conference halls.

Since last year’s elections, thousands of opposition activists have been arrested and some died under torture. A number of dissidents have been executed or sentenced to death. The government has accused artists of falling prey to foreign “enemies” and stepped up pressure for their work to toe its ideological line. More than 100 artists have had their works banned or have been prevented from traveling abroad. Others have been detained.

To protest the postelection crackdown, Shajarian demanded that state radio and TV stop broadcasting his music. The government responded by accusing artists of falling prey to foreign “enemies” and by stepping up pressure for their work to toe its ideological line. More than 100 artists have had their works banned or have been prevented from traveling abroad. Others have been detained.

A few months after last year’s June 12 election, Shajarian was interrogated by intelligence agents. “They asked the usual questions,” he said. “And I put them in their place, telling them the election was nothing more than a coup.”

Shajarian still lives in Iran and risks arrest over his harsh criticisms of the government. He laughed when asked if he worried he might be detained.

“It won’t be so easy for them to jail me. … But if they do something like that, there’s nothing one can do,” he said.

Shajarian grew up in a traditional and religious family. His father, Mehdi, a teacher of the Muslim holy book of Quran, also had a good voice that he had inherited from his own father, but did not allow his son to pursue music. So the teenage Shajarian took music lessons in secret.

He began his singing career in 1959 and sang publicly for the first time on a state radio station in his hometown of Mashhad, in northeastern Iran, at the age of 18.

Classical Iranian music is popular because of its close association with famous Iranian poets, including medieval mystics such as Baba Taher, Attar, Hafez, Rumi, Rudaki and Omar Khayyam.

The music is spare, often improvised on a solo instrument. Voice, lute, fiddle, drum and other instruments are rarely all heard simultaneously; each takes its turn when being played for the ear to appreciate the sound. And each instrument, including the voice, shadows the others by repeating the same melodies higher or lower.

“Its alternating high-and-low, question-and-answer phrases are often described as ‘aloud and silent’ – a paradox that nicely reflects its mystical religious roots,” wrote music critic and ethnomusicologist Michael Church.

“Transmission of this art has always been from master to pupil, ‘from chest to chest,’ as Iranian musicians say.”

In the last 20 years, Shajarian has invented new string instruments such as Bam Sorahi, Saghar and Kereshmeh. Bam Sorahi, which is similar to the cello, resonates with a lower-pitched sound in comparison with Shajarian’s earlier invention, Sorahi. Saghar is similar to Tar, a plucked lute, but produces a different tone. Kereshmeh is close to the lute family but has a different form and the strings have been changed. Shajarian also introduced a new percussion instrument, covered by skin on both sides, similar to a drum.

“I felt our music was missing a few sounds,” said Shajarian. “I wanted our sounds to be more colorful.”