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.
Omid Safi: I wanted to begin by asking about your own biography, and where you first became exposed to music.
Mohammad-Reza Shajarian: 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.
OS: Were there particular poets that were especially influential to you?
M-RS: Hafez and Sa’di. Those two were especially important for me.
OS: Did you begin with poetry, and then add music?
M-RS: In the beginning it was music and singing, and then I studied poetry more systematically alongside music.
OS: I am aware that many Iranian friends first became acquainted with you through the Radio.
M-RS: 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.
OS: 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?
M-RS: 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.
OS: 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.
M-RS: You are very kind. It has been like this for over 30 years.
OS: 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?
M-RS: 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.
OS: Are these similar to the setar and so on?
M-RS: 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.
OS: 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?
M-RS: 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.
OS: What kind of music do you like to listen to?
M-RS: Any music. I like all music. I like all good music. Any music that leads me to imagine a good and beautiful ambience, a good space, I listen to it.
OS: What projects are you working on now?
M-RS: 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.
TOMORROW: Part 2