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Q&A | Mohammad-Reza Shajarian

by AMIR H. REZVANI and OMID SAFI

18 Apr 2012 19:56Comments
04-28-12-Shajarian-570x200.jpgThe maestro kicks off his U.S. tour in Boston on April 19. Click here for more dates. Reprinted with permission of Duke University.

[ interview ] The Iranian singer and composer Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, who brings his 17-piece Shahnaz Ensemble to the Durham Performing Arts Center on April 28, is known around the world as the greatest living master of traditional Persian music.

Most familiar to Western listeners from his two "Best World Music" Grammy nominations and his placement in NPR's "50 Great Voices" series, Shajarian had already been a popular icon in Iran for decades when, in 2009, he withdrew his music from state radio to protest the Iranian presidential election results, becoming, according to Duke religious studies professor Mohsen Kadivar in a recent Duke Today profile, "the voice of liberty and justice and freedom for Iranians."

In anticipation of this rare North Carolina concert, Duke Professor of Psychiatry Amir H. Rezvani arranged a telephone interview with Shajarian, who was lecturing and leading seminars at Stanford and Berkeley at the time. Rezvani took a voice recorder to the home of UNC Religious Studies Professor Omid Safi. They made Persian tea and spoke extensively with Shajarian about his life, his music, and his legacy. "For both of us," Rezvani told The Thread, "it was an historic moment."

With the kind permission of all involved, we present the following transcript of the conversation, as translated by Omid Safi.

I wanted to begin by asking about your own biography, and where you first became exposed to music.

I sought it myself. My parents didn't have anything to do with it. I didn't have any teachers. I studied poetry and music on my own, and pursued it.

Were there particular poets that were especially influential to you?

Hafez and Sa'di. Those two were especially important for me.

Did you begin with poetry, and then add music?

In the beginning it was music and singing, and then I studied poetry more systematically alongside music.

I am aware that many Iranian friends first became acquainted with you through the Radio.

It was actually quite simple. In those days you just went to the Radio [building], did a reading, and if they liked you, you would get a program. That's how it happened to me.

There is a special prayer that many of us associate with you. It is the "Our Lord", Rabbana, prayer. This is the prayer that Iranian TV/Radio plays for the occasion of breaking the fast during the month of Ramadan. Can you tell us about how you came to be associated with it?

It was an amusing story. Many people that I knew in Radio and TV [of Iran] asked for my help in training people that could recite prayers and poems for the breaking of the fast [iftar] during the fasting month of Ramadan. I became involved, and put together some prayers and some poems for it. It wasn't supposed to be; I was only supposed to be training people. I taught them how to recite these lines, and it took three to four months to do so, but in the end they decided to have me recite it myself instead of my students. So I did, and it has come to mean a lot to people.

I know that for many of us, when the time for Ramadan comes, we can't help think of it without thinking of you and your voice.

You are very kind. It has been like this for over 30 years.

Now I'd like to ask you about Persian music and poetry. I know that you have invented quite a few musical instruments. Will you be using some of these instruments during this concert here at Duke?

I have invented eight or nine instruments, which are adaptations of traditional instruments. These are to fill the gaps between traditional instruments, and we will use them in our concert. It produces a better effect of harmony. When people hear them in a group context, they notice the different effect of this harmony.

Are these similar to the setar and so on?

They are string instruments, like the setar, kamanche, and so on. String instrument performers can use them, though they have a different sound. I tried to make sure that performers who know how to use string instruments would be able to use these new instruments to fill in the gaps between existing instruments.

Do you have much of an interest in "world music?" Today, many people listen not just to the music of their own country, but to Indian, Chinese, Classical European, and so on. What do you think is the role of Persian music vis-à-vis world music?

This question that you ask, one cannot answer briefly. Let's take an instrument: setar, kamanche, piano. It's like a car, you can go anywhere with it. Instruments are like this. Once you have an instrument, you can play any melody, easily. Music has its own language. With these notes -- do-re-mi-fa-so-la-si -- one can play all the musical formats. It depends on one's taste.

My hope is that Persian music would be played more; that more people from around the world come to listen to it and have a relationship with it. Hopefully they will come to have a taste for it.

What kind of music do you like to listen to?

Any music. I like all music. I like all good music. Any music that leads me to imagine a good and beautiful ambiance, a good space, I listen to it.

What projects are you working on now?

The same as the projects of past, with the group Shahnaz. That same type of music that I have composed and performed. In the past, the musicians were of a smaller number; now there are more of them.

As you know, your voice has been recognized as one of the 50 greatest voices in the whole world. What was your opinion about this recognition?

There are lots of things that go into the vocalist. You can look at the artistic persona, the social persona. There are some vocalists that just like to sing and do their own thing. To be recognized as one of the 50 great voices in the world is flattering. But it's not just based on voice and technique. It's because of creativity; it's because my own voice has become the voice of the people. On that level, maybe you can say that my voice is the award-wining one.

Why do you (correctly) think that your own voice deserved to be recognized such an award-winning voice?

I imagine maybe others will think the same about their own voices. If you look at my voice not from a perspective of national or ethnic privilege, and just look at it from the perspective of creativity, the knowledge of vocal and musical creativity, all of those things considered, my voice is different. I am both a creative vocalist and a musical theorist. No two of my concerts are the same.

It is very possible that others have a better voice. Of course, I do sing 19 notes, from the lowest to the highest. A piano has 50 notes. I have sung 19 of them on a stage with ease! There are some vocalists who might have higher notes or lower notes, but the whole range is what we talking about and I can sing them.

I am not an expert in music, but I have been listening to your music carefully for more than three decades. One can listen to your music and easily understand your message. Your songs, especially over the last 30 years, reflect the sufferings, hopes, and aspirations of your people. One can listen to your songs, and get a sense of the history of Iranian society. For example, immediately after the devastating Bam earthquake in Iran, you did a benefit concert for the victims. What inspires you to be such an artist?

This is because of my point of view, my taste, and my social consciousness. Some do art for their own sake. I do art for the sake of humanity. For the sake of the people in whose midst I live. When I see humanity face pains and sufferings, I face them too. I too have borne these sufferings.

Art, fundamentally, is the language of resistance. It's not just a matter of joy and description. In any part of the world where there is inequality, injustice, suffering, and oppression, art grows. That's because people come to express their resistance through art whether it is painting or cinema or music and singing. So I have used music as an art for the betterment of humanity, not as a matter of passing time.

My art has been an art for resistance and the people understood that my voice is their voice. I came to remove silence from their hearts, and give voice to them. One has to come to resist oppression and tyranny anywhere in the world.

One of the ways in which your voice has become a mirror for the soul of Iranian people has been the morgh-e sahar song, the "Bird of the Dawn Time." Can you talk with us about this poem and your singing of it, and how it came to have an aspect of resistance?

This is one of those songs that has been the voice of the people; like the songs of Aref [Qazvini] in the time of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran [1906]. After him, many others composed similar songs of resistance, songs of rebellion against governments and aggressors, and one of them is "The Bird of the Dawn Time." [Note: The poem is from the great poet Bahar and the music is composed by Morteza Khan Neydavoud, a great Jewish-Iranian musician.--Amir Rezvani]

People always ask me to sing this song. It gives voice to their resistance. At the end of my concerts, people always clap and ask me to sing this song.

Maestro, will you sing this song when you visit us?

Yes, we will sing this song.

I remember that on one of my trips to Iran, one of the newspapers in Tehran had a front-page story about how you sang this song in your concert. The eye-catching title was "Shajarian sang morgh-e sahar."

Yes, people are trying to show their resistance by singing this song.

What do you wish and hope for Iranian music, culture, and poetry?

Everyone has this hope: whatever is good for his people, his homeland. Since I am in the realm of music and poetry, I yearn for there to be many musicians who will enter the field and sing beautifully for the people, compose beautiful music for the people, that they will bring joy to them. This is why I have trained so many students to do this, and to give voice to their resistance. That they would be able to give voice to their joy, their victories, and their defeats. More importantly, I hope that my people will have a beautiful life, that my homeland will have freedom and security.

What message do you have for the Americans who are coming to your concert? What do you want them to know about Iran and Iranians?

As has been our history; this noble history that we have had, as exemplified by Cyrus the Great: that they know we are this kind of a people. Not to know us and judge us by our governments. There is a difference.

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