Iran’s Most Revered Singer Dies, Drawing Thousands on to Streets

Iran’s most revered classical musician, vocalist Mohammad Reza Shajarian, has died at age 80, after a career that helped define Iranian culture but was stifled by conservative ideologues once he backed protests a decade ago.

His death from kidney cancer will be felt by millions of Iranians and Persian-speakers throughout the world for whom he symbolized their rich literary and musical heritage. Crowds flocked to the hospital where he was treated in Tehran, many wearing masks as the country fights a spiraling outbreak of coronavirus.

Shajarian’s illness had returned in recent years and as his condition worsened this week Iranians gathered at the hospital to sing one of his most celebrated works, Morgh-e Sahar, or Bird of Dawn. The lyrics were written by an Iranian poet imprisoned in the early 20th century amid a popular uprising that stripped some authority from an all-powerful monarchy.

Subtle Messages

The words found new meaning after 1979, when music was shunned by zealous clerics who were deciding how to run the Islamic republic after ousting the shah. In the first tumultuous decade of the new regime, musical instruments were virtually banned.

Shajarian was born in 1940 in the holy city of Mashhad and began his training reciting the Koran as a small child.

As a master of the classical Persian tradition, he drew on the language’s vast catalog of verse. These lyrics, familiar to many Iranians and delivered with a rich and highly emotive voice, also enabled Shajarian to float subtle political messages about the state of his country. But he rarely directly confronted the country’s tightly controlled rules on free speech — until the disputed presidential elections in 2009.

When hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was awarded a second term, allegations of vote fraud sparked protests and the worst clashes with security forces since 1979. After Ahmadinejad labeled the protesters “dirt and trash,” Shajarian spoke out.

“In that case, I am the voice of this dirt and trash,” he said at a concert overseas in 2010.

The rebuke changed his life. Despite retaining a huge following, Shajarian was unable to perform again at home and was often attacked in the hardline media closely aligned to the country’s military and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In 2015, an official at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance claimed that Shajarian’s behavior “meant he had distanced himself from the people and the system.” He would only be able to perform again if he “cooperated and worked within the framework” of the regime, the semi-official Iranian Labour News Agency reported at the time.

Shajarian’s son Homayoun, who often performed alongside his father and inherited his rich tenor and strong vibrato, regularly plays to packed audiences in Tehran and around the world. He confirmed his father’s death on Thursday on Instagram with a single black square.

— With assistance by Yasna Haghdoost, and Patrick Sykes

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