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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're about to listen to a great voice of dissent.

(Soundbite of a song)

Mr. MOHAMMED REZA SHAJARIAN (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: Mohammed Reza Shajarian may be the most famous singer in all of Iran. He's also Iran's most famous protest singer - even though, strictly speaking, his music does not protest the government at all.

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: Shajarian is the latest singer we're featuring in our year long series, "Fifty Great Voices."

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: This is the voice that many Iranians, or people of Iranian descent, listen to around the world. Just before people break their fast each day during the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, they listen to this prayer by Shajarian.

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Singing in foreign language)

Professor ABBAS MILANI (Director, Iranian Studies, Stanford University): It has such power, and the power of it has virtually nothing to do with the words.

INSKEEP: When the Iranian-American scholar Abbas Milani hears a recording of this prayer, it transports him back to his youth in Iran.

Prof. MILANI: For me, from my childhood, that is the song that is most provocative of the sublime impact that art can have on you and that music can have on you. When I still hear it, I get a chill to my bone and think that this is not the voice of a mere mortal, this is the gods speaking to us.

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: Iranians heard this voice on the radio for decades and then, suddenly the music stopped. Shajarian asked that the government stop broadcasting his songs. He was protesting a crackdown on voters after last year's disputed presidential election.

To understand how he got away with that, it helps to know how he became a famous singer.

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: Shajarian was born in 1940 in Mashhad, a city in northeastern Iran. An enormous shrine to a Shiia Muslim saint dominates that city. It's a very conservative place, where Shajarian sang recitations from the Koran as a child. Yet when he spoke with us, he said his father discouraged him from the traditional Persian music that would make him famous.

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Through Translator) My dad used to say that its Haram and its forbidden.

INSKEEP: Where did you hear about it if it was forbidden in your family?

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Through Translator) The first time, it was through the radio in my uncles house.

INSKEEP: Your uncle felt differently about the music I suppose.

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Through Translator) Yes, he actually played tar and really enjoyed music. So when I went to his house, we both listened to the radio.

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: Once he grew up, Shajarian gave new life to centuries-old Persian songs. His lyrics are often drawn from old Persian poems. Yet the scholar Abbas Milani says that in recent years, his songs have taken on new meanings.

Prof. MILANI: He ends every concert with "Morghe Sahar," "Bird of Dawning."

(Soundbite of song, Morghe Sahar")

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Singing in foreign language)

Prof. MILANI: And it really brings the audience to their feet.

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Singing in foreign language)

Prof. MILANI: (Reading) Bird of Dawning, commence your lament.

And by the end of the song, it is asking the bird to sing so that night of oppression can come to an end, and the day of liberation can begin. And there has developed a kind of a metaphoric language. Night is invariably understood to mean despotism; winter, the cold days of oppression. And this song uses virtually all of these now well-known metaphoric words, to ask for the rise of the day of freedom and end to the night of oppression.

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Singing in foreign language)

Prof. MILANI: Iranian literature is primarily poetry. And Shajarian is a master of this literature and knows exactly what lines from which poems could be used at what moment in history. As he himself says, if you follow my songs, you can almost write the history of the last 40 years.

INSKEEP: What's a particularly noteworthy choice of song that he's made, in your mind?

Prof. MILANI: I think one of the most noteworthy today, is the song that he used after the regime began its crackdown last June.

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Singing in foreign language)

Prof. MILANI: And he sang this song from a poet that was kind of a Perry Como of Iranian poetry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MILANI: Wasnt Hallmark cards in Iran. But if there were Hallmark cards, his poetry would be very much likely candidates to be on those Hallmark cards.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MILANI: And he picked one of this guys' songs and rendered it into a virtual manifesto of the peaceful, democratic movement. And the song says: The soldiers, my brother, put down your gun. Why are you picking your gun against me?

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: Iranian authorities have yet to stop Mohammed Reza Shajarian. His songs don't actually denounce the government. He's just singing classical poetry, of which Iranians are proud. He also happens to know a very important person. He grew up in the same town as Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Prof. MILANI: They have developed this rather complicated relationship.

INSKEEP: Complicated because Shajarian has made it clear that he doesnt approve of the direction of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Prof. MILANI: Absolutely. And he has made it particularly clear since last Junes contested election; letting it be known that he is, as he says himself, the voice of the people and does not want his music to be used to justify oppression.

And I think he has not been arrested because he is now an international figure. And the regime figures that it will pay a very, very heavy political cost for it.

INSKEEP: And so, Shajarian goes on singing.

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: Is it true that you like the house lights to be on so you can see the expressions on people's faces, as you're singing?

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Through Translator) Yes, I really enjoy that. I want to see their faces and see their expressions while Im performing. But its more of a wave that comes towards me. And I feel that wave and I try to give it back to them, that energy.

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: You can watch and listen to Shajarian perform at NPRMusic.org.

Mr. SHAJARIAN: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro.

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