WHEN HE BECAME famous—when, as he sang the opening words of his best-loved song, Morgh-e Sahar, “Dawn Bird”, the crowds would start clapping and leaping to their feet—Mohammad Reza Shajarian credited his musical achievements to his father. That seemed unexpected. His father had been a qari, a reciter of the Quran, in their local mosque in Mashhad, in Iran’s north-east. He had taught him from early childhood which letters had to be leaned on, which treated lightly, which melodiously prolonged. But singing itself, in the classical Persian style, was something his father declared haram, forbidden. So it was in secret that, from the age of 12, he began to study the music that became his life.
Other singers might have perfect pitch, but soon they would begin to waver. In his prime he could sing for 40 minutes, clearly and without stumbling on any of the quarter-tones and the 12 modes (the equivalent of the West’s major and minor keys) which are the hallmark of Persian classical music. Each mode might have as many as 40 melodies associated with it; he had to memorise all of them, so that at any request or movement of the heart he could sing as required. It was he, not the players who might accompany him on the long-necked tar and the shake-drum, who chose both the mode and the lyrics—usually the mystical works of the medieval Sufi tradition, Hafiz, Rumi and Attar, as well as modern pieces. The sound he aimed for was the ringing clarity of the tar: one of his chief teachers, Jalil Shahnaz, was a tar-player rather than a singer. And the core of his music, as he sat cross-legged onstage, was intense concentration not just of mind, but of his whole human awareness. He thought, he said, of people’s longings.
Over the years he captured the country’s soul. He sang on national radio both against the shah’s torture machine and that of the mullahs who, in 1979, overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty. Gradually he became a bridge between those who stayed in the country, struggling through, and the huge Iranian diaspora. “Dawn Bird” had first roused the crowds campaigning for a constitution in the early 20th century; but under the shah and under a pseudonym, so as not to embarrass his father, he made it his own.
Flightless nightingale, rise out of your cage,
sing for the freedom of the human being…
Oh God, oh universe, oh nature,
turn our dark evening into dawn…
Oh fiery sigh! start a flame in this cage…
He was also the haunting radio voice of the Rabbana prayer that called Iranians at dusk to break their Ramadan fast: “Oh Lord, accept this service from us, Thou the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing…”
The mullahs were divided about him. After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini banned Persian instruments and songs, he sang publicly only in the gardens of Western embassies in Tehran. But when war with Iraq broke out in the early 1980s and Persian nationalism needed boosting, the regime gave him space on the airwaves. He often claimed to be non-political, but the songs he chose were rich with allegory: the themes of “night” and “winter”, meaning oppression, or the simple longing for truth that burned in Rumi and Hafiz. More blatant messages came through, too. His first album after the revolution was “Bidad”, “Injustice”, based on a poem by Saadi; it spoke of a wonderful land reduced to a shambles. “Dawn Bird” was a plea for freedom from start to finish. Iran’s history for four decades, he said, was all there in his songs.
It seemed to him that the Islamic Republic’s severity and Persian identity could not fit together. The rules of his intricate musical system, for example, also made room for free-flowing interpretation, improvisation and searching. In 2000 he released “Night, Silence, Desert” with a Kurdish musician, Kayhan Kalhor; it was full of melodies he had found in villages on his travels round Iran. He devised new instruments, mostly variations on the tar and dulcimer, in an attempt to broaden a traditional orchestra’s range. If musicians let themselves be trapped in ancient formats, he told a newspaper, they would no longer speak for their times.
His political dissent took longer to become explicit; until the Green revolution of 2009, after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad engineered a second term. When the protesters were shot and beaten up by security forces, he sang “Language of Fire”:
Put your gun down…
come, sit, talk, listen.
Perhaps the light of humanity
will get through to your heart too.
The protesters were denounced by the regime as “dust and trash”. He considered himself, therefore, the voice of dust and trash. At his concerts he insisted that the house lights stayed up so that he could see the audience’s faces: the women openly weeping, the men pretending to clean their glasses, all as raptly still as he was, but with energy flowing as a wave between them. Every concert ended with “Dawn Bird”, as rose petals showered down on him.
Since he could no longer bear to be a voice on state media, exploited to back up the republic’s propaganda, he asked to be taken off-air. In return, he was banned from all public performances and recording in Iran. He was not arrested—that would have caused too much uproar—but nor did he slip into oblivion. Though he stayed in Iran, quietly doing calligraphy and Japanese gardening, he took his concerts abroad, singing in packed venues in Europe and America. Meanwhile, at home, his music was still everywhere: on cassettes in cars, on CDs and the internet. And when they could no longer hear him on live radio singing the Rabbana prayer, Iranians played his recordings of it defiantly from their windows.
His voice never lost that mystical lilt he had learned from his father. His last public appearance was at the grave of Rumi in the Turkish city of Konya. Its commercialism repelled him. How much closer he was to the great poet when he sang of flying up to God, the Beloved, like a bird; or like the dust beneath the people’s feet. ■
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the headline “The bird of freedom”