The crisis of Persian
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Ironically Alizadeh suggests the opposite. He
believes that Persian music should liberate itself from the
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Traditional music in Iran therefore is becoming
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
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.
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
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
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 rnafisi.com >>> Features