Iranian singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian dies at 80

The singer and composer fought cancer for several years

CORRECTION / This picture taken on October 20, 2008 shows Iran's legendary singer, instrumentalist, and composer Mohammad-Reza Shajarian singing before a microphone in the capital Tehran. Shajarian, who embodied traditional and classical music in Iran, died in Tehran on October 8, 2020 after a long battle with illness, his son said. - 
 / AFP / ISNA / Alireza SOTAKBAR
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Singer, instrumentalist and composer Mohammad Reza Shajarian, who died on Thursday aged 80, embodied traditional and classical Iranian music for more than half a century both at home and abroad.

A national treasure in his homeland, Shajarian nevertheless maintained difficult relations with the authorities in Tehran throughout his career, first under the reign of the shah and then with the Islamic republic.

The "Ostad" – or master in Farsi – who had cancer for several years, "flew to meet his beloved [God]", his son Homayoun Shajarian, himself a successful singer, wrote on Instagram.

Soon after the announcement, thousands of fans gathered at the Jam hospital in Tehran where Shajarian had been admitted a few days earlier in a critical condition, AFP reported.

epa08729608 Female fans of Iran's legendary singer, instrumentalist, and composer Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, with one holding a picture of him, mourn in front of the Jam hospital, where Shajarian reportedly passed away, in Tehran, Iran, 08 October 2020. Shajarian, who embodied traditional and classical music in Iran, died in Tehran after a long battle with an illness.  EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH
Female fans of Mohammad Reza Shajarian mourn in front of the Jam hospital, where Shajarian reportedly passed away, in Tehran, Iran. EPA

In tears and apparently forgetting social distancing rules imposed to contain Covid-19, they sang Mogh-e Sahar, one of Shajarian's many hits.

News of his death sparked an outpouring of grief on social media.

“Shajarian was a great and true ambassador of Iran, [his] children and – most of all – [his] culture,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted.

Shajarian had been persona non grata on state broadcaster Irib since 2009, but that did not stop Iranians from listening to his tenor voice.

Born on September 23, 1940, into a religious family in Mashhad, a holy city in north-east Iran, Shajarian was initiated at the age of 5 to Islamic psalmody by his father, a reciter of the Quran.

At 12 he began his initiation – in secret from his parents – to the santur, a stringed instrument with roots date back to pre-Islamic Persia.

He was trained to perform the “radif” – the traditional repertoire that forms the basis of Persian secular music that every artist is expected to master before moving on to improvisation, typical in Iranian classical music.

Following in his father's footsteps, Shajarian performed as a reciter of the Quran.

In 1959, he made his debut on radio and his voice quickly carried him to fame.

Shajarian quit Iranian radio and TV a few days after "Black Friday" – September 8, 1978 – denouncing the massacre of demonstrators carried out by the shah's regime.

After the Islamic revolution the following year, Shajarian accused the authorities of wanting to use him as a “docile musician” to make people believe they “are not completely opposed to music”.

Shajarian has been critical of the Islamic republic, which he accused of being opposed “to the very idea of the Persian identity of Iranians”.

“While accepting Islam, Iranians never lost their culture,” he once told a German radio station.

In 1997, he criticised Irib in an open letter, accusing it of using his works without his permission, of censoring them and of generally “ignoring moral values”.

He demanded they stop broadcasting his voice, except for two pieces, Monajat and Rabbana, psalms taken from the Quran that he allowed to be played only during Ramadan.

It was a lost cause, however, as the broadcaster ignored his wishes.

In 2009, during a purge of protests against the re-election of ultra-conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Shajarian was angered by the station's use of one of his songs created against the shah.

He once again demanded state radio stop broadcasting his works and said his songs “are and will always remain the voice of twigs and foetuses”.

That was a direct retort to Mr Ahmadinejad, who used the terms derisively to describe the demonstrators.

In his song Zaban-e Atash, Shajarian appears to address paramilitary forces cracking down on the protesters with the line "lay down your gun, my brother".

He said his songs were always related to the political and social situation in Iran, even when he sang the lyrical poems of Hafez or Rumi.

Although Shajarian was never arrested, which he said was because of his popularity and authority, Irib banned his music from its airwaves and he was barred from performing in the country.

Already accustomed to international tours, he continued to perform abroad, especially in the US, where his daughter Mojgan lives.

She is also a singer but is unable to take the stage in Iran, where solo female acts are barred from performing.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tried unsuccessfully to lift the ban on Rabbana.

Shajarian also delved into experimentation through the creation of new instruments based on traditional ones.

Shajarian, who will reportedly be buried in Mashhad, leaves behind an imposing discography.