Mohammad Reza Shajarian, whose distinctive voice quavered to traditional Persian music on state radio for years and supported protesters after Iran’s contested 2009 election, has died aged 80 from cancer, state TV has reported.
Mohammad Reza Shajarian enlivened Iran’s traditional music with his singing style, which soared, swooped and trilled over long-known poetry set to song.
In his later years he could only perform abroad, after he backed those who challenged the disputed re-election of the hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by telling state radio to stop using his songs.
“After what happened, I said ‘no way’ and threatened to file a complaint against them if they continued to use my music,” Shajarian said in 2009.
In March 2016, Shajarian revealed to fans that he had been receiving treatment for kidney cancer for 15 years, both in Iran and abroad. Iran’s culture and health ministers at the time announced they would follow his case, underlining his importance.
Shajarian’s political stand surprised many in Iran, especially among young people who considered him a crooner of an age long gone. Though he once changed his name to avoid his conservative father’s opposition to his singing, Shajarian supported Iran’s movement against the US-backed shah. He resigned from his position at the Iranian state radio before Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
After the revolution, it was Shajarian’s powerful voice on the radio that sang a prayer before sunset during the holy month of Ramadan. He sang it a cappella, like a call coming from a mosque minaret, with teeming emotion that raised goose bumps even through scratchy radio broadcasts. In sold-out concerts, fans pelted him with roses.
Supported by the apparatus of Iran’s cleric-run system, no one expected to hear his voice rise to support the opposition in the unrest surrounding the 2009 election. Ahmadinejad won a contested vote count that sparked massive protests, leading to a crackdown by security forces in which thousands of people were detained, dozens were killed and others tortured.
In September 2009, months after the election, Shajarian sang Zaban e Atash o Ahan, which translates from Farsi as The Language of Fire and Iron. In it, the singer pleaded: “Lay down your gun. Come, sit down, talk, hear. Perhaps the light of humanity will get through to your heart too.”
Mohammad Reza Shajarian then told state radio to stop using his songs, which it did. Suppression of artists had been common following the Islamic revolution, though the 2009 crisis brought on a crackdown unseen in years.
“It’s much greater now because of the stand most of the artists have taken against them,” Shajarian said in 2009. “For now, they’re moving very calmly. But in the future I know there will be a confrontation between the artists and this government.”
In the years that followed, Shajarian performed traditional music for Iranians abroad, and he later returned to his motherland to teach singing.
Mohammad Reza Shajarian was born in 1940 in the religious city of Mashhad, in north-west Iran. He had started singing as a child through reciting the Qur’an.
Mohammad Reza Shajarian Biography
Shajarian started his singing career in 1959 at Radio Khorasan, rising to prominence in the 1960s with his distinct style of singing. His main teachers were Ahmad Ebadi, Esmaeil Mehrtash, Abdollah Davami, and Nour-Ali Boroumand. He also learned the vocal styles of singers from previous generations, including Reza Gholi Mirza Zelli, Fariborz Manouchehri, Ghamar Molouk Vaziri, Eghbal Azar, and Taj Isfahani. He has cited legendary Persian tar soloist Jalil Shahnaz as highly influential to his development, indicating that he has often tried to mimic Shahnaz's playing style in his singing.
Mohammad Reza Shajarian had collaborated with Parviz Meshkatian, Mohammad Reza Lotfi, Sohrab Pournazeri, Hossein Alizadeh, and Faramarz Payvar. He was recognized as a skilled singer in the challenging traditional Dastgah style. In 1999, UNESCO in France presented him with the Picasso Award and in 2006 with the UNESCO Mozart Medal. In 2017, Los Angeles Times cited him as the "Greatest living maestro of Persian classical music".