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The crisis of Persian culture
Part 1: Shajarian in Washington

April 17, 2005

In early March, "Masters of Persian Music" performed at the concert hall of Washington, DC's Kennedy Center. Mohammad Reza Shajarian, his son Homayoon, along with Hossein Alizadeh and Kayvan Kalhor, formed the group. Shajarian Senior sang a famous free verse by Mehdi Akhavan Saless (which was attributed erroneously in the catalog to Sohrab Sepehri ), and another free form poem by Kadekani. In the second part, a couple of poems by Sa'adi was sung, and in the encore, the famous tasneef of "doush doush" by Sheida ended the program.

Shajarian Senior did most of the singing, while father and son sometimes sang together, and on other occasions in lieu of each other. While Kalhor showed how a genius like him could exploit the abilities of a primitive instrument like Kammoncheh (spike-fiddle), Alizadeh performed in his usual style of mixing Azarabijani method of Tar playing with the styles rooted in central Iran. In his hurried tone, Alizadeh was reminiscent of the dexterity and speed of a Tabrizi "Aashegh" (Trubador).

The hall was more or less packed, with an audience lavishly giving its applause and standing ovations to the group. The performance, however, in line with other performances by the Iranian "traditionalist" musicians, once again demonstrated the crisis of the genre. Primarily, the incongruity of using free verse in the context of Persian "radeef" was discernible. The "radeef" is woven around the meter (bahr) of Persian poetry, with its euphony, tonality, rhyme, rhythm, alliterations, and assonance. These are essential to Persian classical poetry, which dominates Persian classical music.

The ghazal and "robaee" (quatrine) are the most suitable for this type of music. In fact even the name "Radeef" is originally a term used for the ghazal. The ghazal has a certain internal and external musicality that amplifies itself through singing and instrumentation. Even "tasneef," or the rhythmical singing, follows the structure of ghazal and abides by its rules. It is not to say that the free verse is devoid of all those characteristics. In fact the two poets whose free verses were sang - Saless and Kadekani -- are about the most knowledgeable experts in the field of Persian poetry, and utilize a certain meter in their works. They are different from the poets of "white" verse. But naturally other characteristics of ghazal are missing in their free verses.

Moreover, both ghazal and Persian classical music belong to the romantic era. The exaggeration used in ghazal is beyond any naturalistic or realist art form. On the other hand, the free verse founded by Nima Youshij was initiated with naturalism and social realism. It is not the form only; the content of free verse is also incongruent with Persian classical music.

One may argue that free verse is more appropriate for use by younger "pop" musicians. The younger generation of Iranian musicians who have no training whatsoever in radeef may be able to handle the free form better. We may add that most of Iranian "pop" musicians imitate unwittingly the Afghani style of singing, with its melancholic tone and monotonic space. Unfamiliar with Iranian radeefs, the young generation of Iranain musicians performs mostly from the beginning to end in the same segment (goosheh) of an Iranian "dastgah," a process which contributes wily-nily to the impoverishment of the traditional form.

The creation of Persian music that could reflect the new "haal o hava" (ambiance) has never been easy. The most successful blend of the traditional and the modern occurred at the dawn of the Qajar and rise of the Pahlavi period when Alinaghi Vaziri codified Persian music and introduced notation to the genre. Aref who had no musical training in modern style introduced "operetta" into Persian music. Darvish Khan who was well adept in both Persian and European music left behind some ever-lasting tasneefs. Abolhassan Saba's application of European violin in the context of Persian traditional music was the most successful ever.

A generation later at the end of the Pahlavi era, the great "Golha" ensemble used orchestra to enhance its effect, but never violated the norms. Orchestral works of Khaleghi and Morteza Mahjoobi are among the best of the era. They truly expanded the space of Persian music.

Shajarian is one of those traditionalists who make valiant efforts to integrate the old and the new. In his tours aboard he is accompanied by no more than two or three instruments, mostly due to financial reasons. Being short of instrumental music, the singer fills the time. While in the tradition set after the introduction of the radio, instruments perform almost two thirds of the time, Shajarian has reversed it. Theoretically he also believes that the core of Persian music is the vocalist; instrumental music should only follow.

Ironically Alizadeh suggests the opposite. He believes that Persian music should liberate itself from the singer! He has created music without singers, or has used multiple singers to create a chorus of incomprehensible voices. He is trying to reduce the song to just another instrument. The accompaniment of the two masters with such opposing views is an interesting accident.

Shajarian's emphasis on singing "avaz" (song) on the other hand is partly out of necessity. The current Persian music suffers from the lack of "tasneef" writers. Tasneef is the rhythmic part of the performance that takes away the tedium of "avaz". Unlike improvisational American music, tasneef is written by the professionals, not the singer. Post-radio Persian music relies heavily on professional tasneef writers. Traditionally the musician gives his melodies to the poet, and he would add a Tasneef to it.

The late Rahi Moa'yeri was the undisputed master of tasneef, while others like Bijan Taraghi were well known in late Pahlavi era as well. The likes of Moa'iyeri were not produced in post-revolutionary era, and it seems that the tasneef died down with them. Tasneef, with its rhythmical melody helped soften the heavy space of "avaz;" an accompaniment that no longer exists.

Shajarian has tried creating a number of tasneefs himself, none of which has stayed in the collective public memory. Moreover, Shajarian's tenor lends itself to melancholic and sad songs. But he performs many tasneefs with happy rhythms, such as "doush doush." The contrast between the tenor and the message and rhythm of some tasneefs is so obvious that one may assume he is doing this just as a duty.

Many traditionalists in fact prefer "avaz," because singing tasneef is presumed to be below the status of the "masters;" a carry over from "rowzeh" (religious sermon and lamentation over the death of martyrs), into secular music. The dance prone rhythms of a good number of tasneefs do not fit into the timbre of Shajarian's tenor, in fact fight it. Demonstrably the singer prefers melancholic space of ghazals.

No wonder Shajarians' best work is his "Beedad," a powerful ghazal of Hafez which was performed in the eighties amidst war and repression by the state. "Beedad" is all protestation and complain, a lamentation over the things past, and the happiness gone. The "Beedad" is the mirror of its time, although carved in symmetrical ghazal of a man who suffered a similar tragic era more than seven hundred years before Shajarian. The lack of tasneef writers goes hand in hand with the dearth of composers.

Meshkatian, Alizadeh, and Fakhroddini, who are all products of the late-Pahlavi era, produced some memorable pieces in the post-revolutionary era. However, the art of composition gradually withered away, and the melodic form replaced the orchestral. What is now being performed on the Iranian state owned radio and television is an ensemble of tens of instrumentalists and singers, just playing the melodic music without benefiting from the art and technique of harmony and orchestration.

Dozens of musicians play the same melody as if they are in the pre-polyphonic era! Ironically, while they are performing, the television viewer is not allowed to "see" them! According to a late fatwa, listening to, or rather hearing, music is permissible as long as it can be perceived as "doubtful" sound! In other words, listening to music for music (ghana) is forbidden (haram), but if you can doubt as whether it is music or say a sound from the street or nature, it is permissible. We are in the era of "hear but not see" music for the Iranian couch potatoes!

Traditional music in Iran therefore is becoming similar to miniature paintings of Isfahan, an art that reached its heights during the reign of Safavids, but has stymied ever since. Now hundreds of artisans in Isfahan produce the same clichés, but some of them interject new techniques such as perspective into their paintings. In these miniatures, polo players with Asiatic features and medieval outfits are racing, and hunters shoot arrows at leopards and lions. But in reality there are no lions left in the land, or polo players, or Asiatic-looking men. The added perspective also does not add anything to the clichés, rather, takes away its faint resemblance to the traditional art.

Persian music seems to be still considered "honar" in the traditional meaning of the term, where "honar" (art) and "fann" (technique) are used fairly synonymously. The art of singing therefore is just the mastery of voice as an instrument, not the expression of the inner feelings of the singer and his/her personal interpretation of the world. Like any other artisan, this "honar" transfers from father to the son. Once the father retires, the son takes over.

The singing of Shajarian conveys no personal message. In fact many singers in Iran imitate his style, because it is devoid of personal touch of the artist. It is all about the voice itself, rather than what it coveys. It is free from individualism of the artist and easy to emulate if you have the right voice timbre. Persian audiences' stand-up ovations are not a sign of symbiosis of the audience and the artists, rather, an admiration of the voice of the singer, and the dexterity of the players. The transition to art form has not yet taken place.

On the other hand, what is called traditional music is no longer. The effort to put the new wine in the old bottle seems to have not been that successful. The masters who were the last in line with the great tradition of the past such as Broomand and Davami have passed away without any clear successors. Iranian "pop" music that is so in favore among the youth, has already cut its umbilical cord from the history and culture of the nation, and is creating a genre similar to pop music in any other part of the world.

Patrons of art and music, such as the royal court and the aristocracy have vanished. The nascent Islamic state, virile and piously militant against any expressions of personal feelings except in "rowzeh," does not even pretend to be a supporter of artistry. We may as well be witnessing the end of an era in the history of our music.

Rasool Nafisi is Department Head of General Studies at Strayer University in Greater Metropolitan Area of Washington, DC, teaching courses in sociology and the humanities. Visit >>> Features in

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