Braad Thomsen’s 2006 documentary on maestro Shajarian is titled "The Voice of Iran", and after nearly four decades as the preeminent vocalist of traditional Iranian music one can hardly dispute the claim.
Growing up, Mohammad Reza Shajarian was simply part of my life, like the early morning children radio show featuring a talking cloud called Amoo Abr. If not as ubiquitous and popular as Googoosh, or hip and topical as Daryush, Shajarian was nevertheless a regular feature on Iran’s radio and television. [Sample music]
There were other vocalists in what was referred to as sonnati (traditional) music scene but even then Shajarian’s mastery was indisputable. Of course the maestro has never been everybody’s cup of tea. Let’s face it, you can’t party head banger style with the traditional Iranian music. The sense of elation one feels listening to its more, shall we say, up tempo rhythms can hardly match the body rocking feeling the sonic beat of some of the other cultures’ traditional music, say Brazilian Samba, induces in one let alone Rock ’n’ Roll.
In those pre-1979 days there was a sort of chasm between pop music - the music most people listened to - and the refined austere music that Shajarian performed. In the battleground of ideas that preceded the Iranian revolution, the kind of music you listened to placed you in a certain camp. In the more refined circles and among the intellectuals pop music was referred to as mobtazal (vulgar); it was thought to be inauthentic and mimetic of Western pop. The traditional music by contrast was aseel (authentic).
Of course Shajarian and the traditional music were also promoted heavily during the annual Shiraz Arts Festival and especially favoured by its patron, Farah Pahlavi. On that point the official culture and the opposition seemed to agree, that there was an authentic form of Iranian music and that was the sonnati music. Regardless of cultural politics however, Shajarian went on performing and helping to revive a stale music scene that needed innovation badly. Silenced like most other artists in the early years after the revolution, the maestro has since re-emerged and has been performing steadily for the last twenty years.
Just as the re-emergence of Googoosh signaled a nostalgic revival of sorts for Iranian bourgeoisie and the recent proliferation of underground Western inspired musical genres in Iran from Rap and Metal to Blues and various sorts of fusion has signaled a new youth culture and a reaction to globalization of culture and the new telecommunication technology, Shajarian’s music has become for many a site of resistance in culture against the dominant vulgar pious oppression.
Shajarian’s voice has indeed become the voice of Iran. In the current post-modern zeitgeist the once division between pop and classical no longer hold much water; neither do the suspect notions of authenticity and return to roots. Those are dangerous and illusory notions that to some extent contributed to emergence of Islamism in Iran.
However for me Shajarian’s artistic output reflects, like no other artist’s, a sense of continuity of Iran’s history. Shajarian’s music embodies, with skill, grace and emotional complexity, that very Iranian trait, the will to survive. Although the maestro has given numerous great performances through the years, my favourite Shajarian performance is from the mid-seventies, one most likely recorded for the Iranian television.
Dressed in white turtle neck and black blazer, Shajarian, looking no more than in his mid-thirties, sits on a chair cross-legged while his frequent collaborator Lotfi plays the setar in a dastgah that to my lay person ear sounds like Abu Atta. Sitting still throughout the performance and only occasionally bobbing his head ever so lightly, the maestro sings the long demanding piece with ridiculous ease. It may be the greatest 18 minutes of singing ever recorded; only singing hardly seems an adequate description of what the man does.
His voice streams out with such power and purity, embodying centuries of technique yet with such emotional texture as to leave the listener in absolute awe. It’s a voice hard yet clear like crystal, a crystal through which one can see three millennia of Iran’s history and culture, from Zarathustra at the dawn of spiritual man through to Baarbad in the Sassanid court, to Alexander’s sacking of Perspolise, to the invasion of the Arabs, to Rudaki and Avecina, to the Mongol plunder and Hafez’s great existential shrug, to Hasan Sabbah’s stubborn resistance at Alamut, the horse rides in the caucuses and the Shalimar gardens in Kashmir. It’s the voice of endurance in the face of pious repression and invaders’ brutality and regeneration through culture. It’s a unifying voice that provides continuity between the past and the present with skill, beauty, modesty and brilliance. This unity, this acceptance of its history as a whole, is something that is badly lacking in Iranian culture.
Iranians are not the only group that suffers from split personality so to speak but no other culture has dated the split in its personality back 1500 years. For some Iran’s history started with the Arab conquest and brining of Islam to Iran. The fact that a thriving civilization existed in the Iranian plateau for centuries before that and at one point ruled most of the known world; that the first great monotheistic religion, Zoroastrism, developed there doesn’t seem to matter. They are in denial of centuries of history.
Then there are those who trace back any evil that has befallen Iran ever since to that fateful day of “national humiliation” at Qadisiyyah. They long forever for a lost Eden that never was. These people in turn deny 1500 years of history ever since. The fact is that the Arab conquest was only one rupture in a series of traumatic ruptures that Iran has endured in its long history and yet through it all it has survived primarily through its language and its culture. The Iranian culture has absorbed and civilized the invaders and in the process it has morphed and changed into something new. Continuity in Iran’s history has been provided by its language and culture not by its royal dynasties.
Almost thirty years after another great rupture in its history, Iran stands at the beginning of 21st century badly in need of another national regeneration. But if this regeneration is to happen it will require independence and innovation, not mimicry and dependency, and it will require a sense of historical continuity. In critical times Iranian artists have always been at the forefront and no voice is more representative of historical continuity, at least for me, than that of maestro Shajarian.
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