A wise mother once told her young, talented son “you will create the deepest bonds and most cherished friendships through your music.”
Ali Jafarian’s mother foretold, arguably, the greatest outcome of his son’s life -- perhaps setting the trajectory for what was to become, and the countless hearts he would touch.
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As the winds of time have a tendency to fade our accounts of the past, I decided to waste no time in writing my memories of Ali Jafarian, who departed in early September 2013. Just as we cherish historical heroes, such as Ferdowsi, George Washington or Shakespeare through stories passed down the generations, I thought it is important for me to leave behind this story. Rather than providing biographical elements, I chose to write about my personal account.
Ali Jafarian is one of my favorite Iranian heroes of our times; unfortunately his accomplishments and significance are far less recognized than they deserve. In a time of monumental social and economic challenges that has deprived many Iranians of hope and prosperity, Ali Jafarian used his music and unbound compassion to grant young people strength and encouragement. Furthermore, he kept alight a torch of Persian cultural heritage through his relentless efforts to the proliferation of music during these challenging times.
It was the summer of 2009. The situation in Iran was very difficult: hope for a brighter future seemed to be all but faded. I was on a visit to my family’s hometown of Shiraz. My uncle’s wife, Homa, insisted that I meet this ostad (maestro): highly regarded in Shiraz for his remarkable proficiency in music, widely renowned compositions and popular music classes. As is the norms in Shiraz, it didn’t take much effort to receive a gracious invitation from Ostad Jafarian: to visit one of his ensemble’s rehearsals at his home.
On a Friday afternoon (approximately 4PM, following the customary daily siesta in Shiraz), Homa drove me to Ali Jafarian’s residence. She was excited to visit her long-time friend. And I was thrilled to see a highly-revered maestro, however I had no clue that one of my most incredible life encounters was just around the corner.
We drove up to a narrow alley shielded by high walls and seemingly bland homes; supposedly his home was somewhere here. As we struggled to find our destination, a group of children in the alley quickly identified the gate. I readily noticed something different about Mr. Jafarian’s home: grape vines peered across the high walls and overhanging branches could be seen above. There was also something else faintly in the background: music. Homa rang the bell and Mrs. Jafarian quickly picked up. After a quick “hello,” the door was buzzed open and seconds later Mrs. Jafarian was at the gate to welcome us with her pleasant grace and warm smile. The Jafarian residence was a visually stimulating scene, engulfed by rich gardens around a well-decorated, yet modest home. But one thing inundated my attention: the faint music had now blossomed into a rich, bustling source of energy. The sound of strings, Persian instruments, piano and female vocals immediately reminded me of the colors of ensembles from the old barnameye-Golha (national radio music programming of the 1950’s-1970’s).
At this point, I believe my greetings were a bit too short and impersonal (possibly perceived as slightly rude by Iranian standards). Instinctively, I wanted to waste no time to see this ensemble with my own eyes. Being a strong advocate of her husband’s music career and sharing his goals, I’m sure Mrs. Jafarian understood my rush.
In the back of their home was a large family and living room, converted into an ensemble rehearsal hall. Approximately 20 ensemble members were present: musicians, vocalists: and most interesting, all female (ages ranging from early teens to upper 30’s).
10 or more chairs were neatly placed on the side for guests and visitors with frequent offerings for tea and desert (not shocking in a hospitable city like Shiraz).
There… in the front was the ostad I had heard so much about: Ali Jafarian, in modest clothing and distinctive black shades. The center of attention, admiration and respect felt completely focused on this single individual. With the vivid strokes of his violin bow and periodic waving of his arm to set the meter, Mr. Jafarian led his ensemble.
Interestingly, he personally trained and coached all of the ensemble members. The strong techniques and performance abilities I witnessed was evidence of Mr. Jafarian’s mastery of music and profound capability to teach and inspire.
Although his blindness precluded his vision, it seemed as though he could see everything.
Once in a few minutes, he would yell “stop.” In one such instant he said to one of several santur players: “Sahar jaan, please play your middle C.” After hearing it, Mr. Jafarian in the kindest yet assertive tone guided his student towards correcting the instrument’s tune. Other times, I recall Mr. Jafarian guiding his violin players to proper articulation on musical phrases. “I’m hearing this [playing the incorrect phrase], this [playing the corrected phrase] is how it should sound. Don’t start it with a downbow. Play the first note with an upbow and then slur the rest.”
Numerous singers took the stand and performed beautiful songs from numerous renowned composers, among the most notable: Rouhollah Khaleghi, Ali Tajvidi, Mohammad Sarir and … Ali Jafarian. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. I was seeing hope, life and confidence in youth that may have otherwise drowned in uncertainty and insecurity. The students were glowing with joy, excitement and incredible passion.
Too soon it was break-time. Mr. Jafarian announced, “Before you leave for break please welcome me in inviting our guests. The gentleman sitting to my right, Neema Hekmat, is visiting from the United States.” His students, quick to respond to requests from their dear maestro, immediately began extending their greetings. I was intrigued by his level of courtesy… beyond any standard of expectation, especially from an ostad. It didn’t end there. After a few moments, Mr. Jafarian said “Neema jaan, would you please play something for the ensemble.” Not having observed my level of skills first-hand, I was amazed by his degree of humbleness and openness to me, an unproven newcomer.
After another hour of rehearsal, the session came to a close. As the ensemble members packed up and prepared to leave, they individually came to their teacher to thank him and say goodbye. With a sincere and warm approach, Mr. Jafarian reciprocated the greeting, offered his ‘quick tips’ and made it known he was happy that they could make it.
In the most hospitable approach, Mr. and Mrs. Jafarian insisted I not leave after the session. “Please stay.” He intently asked about my artistic work and carefully listened. Then, in a lively and colourful way, Mr. Jafarian described his life, musical interests, lessons he’s learned and a few funny tales. However, it was almost as if Mr. Jafarian’s intent was fully-focused on trying to help me: bringing up those life stories that seemed to resonate with my personal and artistic challenges; and painting paths of opportunities and trying to help me in overcoming obstacles.
Suddenly, ‘blindness’ began to take a different meaning for me.
That evening, I bid farewell not knowing that this would be my single and last visit of Ali Jafarian.
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After this encounter and telling others about my visit, I began to gain greater appreciation for Mr. Jafarian’s popularity in Shiraz and the vast number of students he trained.
Although Ali Jafarian was not native to Shiraz (born in Tehran), he was widely popular in the city and established a strong reputation for his undying commitment to Iran’s cultural heritage – and touching the hearts of countless young artists and enthusiasts.
In an age of shear monumental challenges, what better gift can we provide than hope, inspiration and strength for our youth? This is the biggest lesson that I learned from Ali Jafarian: a modern-day Iranian hero. That in the most difficult circumstances, we can still find good in ourselves to help others.
There is a way to see light, no matter how great the darkness…
May his example live on and strong.
September 15, 2013
Mountain View, California