Farewell to a Legend of Iranian Music

Sahar Sadeghi is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Muhlenberg College. Her scholarship focuses on race, racism, migration, and the Iranian diaspora and she is currently writing a book on the racialization and politicization of Iranians in Germany and the US.

We left Iran when I was five. It was Mohammad Reza Shajarian who connected me to Iran and my elders from afar. He also made me see, feel, and understand that my culture and the music and art of my people was brilliant, regardless of what the news was saying. I vividly recall sitting with my father as a child, in front of the stereo, eyes closed, listening for the melodies to go up and down. My baba would say “wait for it, be patient, it’s coming. Listen to how the instruments talk to each other. You hear how they answer each other?” The anticipation of a crescendo was always near. The explosion was coming. This always excited me. I barely understood the lyrics, the poetry, so my father would let the track play for a while, then pause it, and translate for me, in layman’s terms, the scene that had just unfolded. “What was the plot, baba?” “God, Sahar. The meeting with the Beloved.”

Mohammad Reza Shajarian was born in Mashhad in 1940. Like many artists of his time, his path to music is rooted in recitations of the Quran. In his adolescent years, he rigorously studied Persian classical music, folk songs, and poetry. His career would start at “Radio Khorasan” in 1959, and at Tehran University teaching singing (avaz).

Shajarian’s deep knowledge of Iranian history, and its cultural and regional diversity manifested in his art. He often said that music “comes from the history of a nation,” that it should reflect the needs and wants of a people. He brought music to the center of Iranian civic society, and into Iranian households. He was one of the few artists and musicians of his caliber that remained in Iran after the Iranian Revolution.

Throughout all the hardships and trauma of the Iran-Iraq war, he remained in Iran, and was there to remind the Iranian people that better days would come after the war. His voice not only played in people’s homes but also on radio and television, his soothing chanting of a famous Islamic prayer becoming a staple of yearly Ramadan broadcasts.

In 2009, after he backed the Green Movement in protesting against alleged voter fraud, he became a celebrated part of Iran’s movement for greater democracy. Amid the protests, he told the government to stop using his music on state media. The government responded by banning him from Iranian state media and from performing publicly within Iran. Even after his voice was silenced, he stayed and never wavered in his hope and commitment to Iran and the Iranian people, and his voice continued to grace people’s homes in defiance of the ban.

It was through Shajarian and Iranian classical music that I became better acquainted with Mowlana, Hafez, and Saadi. Shajarian was a vessel, a medium through which we learned the rich culture of our people, the melodies and the poetry, and the beauty of our culture and of togetherness. His body of work defied national boundaries and placed Iranian classical music on an international stage.

The beauty of Shajarian’s art has connected generations of Iranians, within and outside of Iran. His art is evoked in our stories and memories. While I do not come from a musical family in the sense of trained or practicing musicians, we are lovers of these sonic melodies. Iranian classical musical has been ringing in my ears since I can remember, and when I spoke with my father after Shajarian’s passing was announced, he told me “Sahar, I grew up with him, I cannot separate his music from my own life, my narrative, he is forever etched in me. All these memories…”

It is Shajarian that also leads me to my beloved grandmother Akram Sadeghi, who every morning, after her morning prayer, turned on the radio and listened to Radio Payam. She truly loved classical music, and when I hear his voice I see her in front of me, in her kitchen, and making tea and telling me to come eat breakfast. My baba is right; I also cannot “separate Shajarian’s music from my own life.”

Shajarian feels like an uncle to me, an uncle I know well, but never actually got to meet. That family member in Iran you have seen in the picture album, whose voice you heard over the phone all these years. The uncle that everyone tells you has an amazing voice, the “family expert” on Persian poetry, the one that everyone seemingly has some loving memory with, the one that you hope to meet one day in person.

Ostad Mohammad Reza Shajarian said that he wanted to be remembered as “yek farzande Iran, “a child of Iran,” and without question he will be remembered for that. He will be evoked for his brilliance, humanity and the deep love and hope that he had for Iran and the Iranian people. We are grateful that he left us a musical legacy to be proud of. There will truly not be another. Ruhetun Shad Bashe, Ostade Aziz.

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