Sunday, July 17, 2011

Persian Protest Music: Mohammed Reza Shajarian

I was introduced to the voice of Mohammed Reza Shajarian about 25 years ago.  At the time I was employed by the United Nations in Pakistan to work with refugees and asylum seekers from Iran and Iraq. These were the final years of Ayatollah Khomeini and the grinding horror of a brutal war between the two arch enemies. The revolutionary euphoria of the previous decade had for many Iranians turned to bitterness and despair.  Many of the people who I worked with in those years were politically aware and active (often with Leftist parties).  They had fled Iran after years of imprisonment or in fear of being imprisoned by the Imams  who continued to tighten all social and political screws.

One young man from Tabriz in the northwest part of Iran one day gave me a grimy cassette tape.  It had no case and the label had been written over and erased many times.  He had recently been released from 6 years in Evin Prison, one of Iran’s most infamous jails. He had been tortured horribly during his time but seemed not to too think too much of the experience. It just was one of the twists in his journey and now, thanks to the UN, he was off to Scandinavia to finally re-start his young life.  “This is who we listened too in prison,” he said. “He gave us courage and great hope that one day we would be freed.”

The music got to me instantly. The voice was of a man who seemed to be lamenting some deep injustice. It came from a place of great pain; each verse fell from his mouth exhausted but somehow liberated.  I found out the lyrics were poems of the great Iranian poet Hafez of Shiraz. The owner of the tape referred to the singer only as Shajarian.

Mohd Reza Shajarian

Mohammad Reza Shajarian was born in Mashad, on the Afghanistan border and got his introduction to singing from listening to devotional recitations. His father refused to let him sing songs of the classical Iranian repertoire but as a young man he sought out living masters and immersed himself in the poetry and music of old Iran.
BIrds of Dawning?

Like many great artists his music is universally loved and he is proudly promoted as one of Iran’s greatest living musical artists. And yet, like my friend the political refugee, millions have found in Shajarian’s music a mighty prophetic voice of protest.  Every concert ends with the song Morgh-e-sahar (Bird of Dawning) in which the singer asks the bird to sing, so the night of oppression can come to an end, and the day of liberation can begin.

During the violent turmoil that followed the 2009 elections, as a vote of protest and solidarity with the protestors,  he refused to allow his music to be played on national radio and now rarely performs in public in Iran.

Hafez of Shiraz
The music I heard on that cassette I recently traced again. It is Bidad (Injustice) a collection of songs based on the mystical poetry of Khwaja Shamsuddin Mohammad Hafez of Shiraz.

Bear with me for a bit longer as I tie up one more string of this ragged and overlong introduction.  A few months after my refugee friend left for Scandinavia I received a package postmarked, Tabriz.  Inside was the famous Diwan-e-Hafiz a gorgeous collection of the 14th century poet’s works translated into 7 languages! Inside was a short note. “Dear Sir, For rescuing my son and enabling him to reach a country of safety, I am deeply grateful.  Please accept this book as a token of my love.”  It was signed by my friend’s mother.

            Track Listing:
            01 Moghaddame
     02 Saz o Avaz - Bidad, Bayat Raje, Oshagh, Gharche,       Forood be  Bidad be Shooshtar
    03 Ghate Sooz o Godaz
    04 Edame Saz o Avaz - Edame Shooshtari (2),          Forood be Homayoon
   05 Tasnif Yad Bad
  06 Peesh Daramad Homayoon
  07 Chahar Mezrab Homayoon
  08 Sav o Avaz - Daramad Homayoon, Homayoon (2), Segah o Homayoon (1), Chakavak
  09 Chahar Mezrab Bidad
  10 Edame Saz o Avaz - Bidad, Bayat Raje, Oshagh
  11 Chahar Mezrab Oshagh
  12 Edame Saz o Avaz - Oshagh o Gharche
  13 Saz o Avaz - Gharche, Razavi, Hejaz, Jame Daran, Kord Bayat (1, Abu Ata
  14 Tasnif Halak Man

Listen here.

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