Coming to Berkeley: Persian Sufi Music Great Shajarian
In classical world music — the quaint name covering conveniently a good deal of non-Western music — today there are some artists familiar and acclaimed in the U.S., along with the rest of the world.
Among them, famously, three from the Subcontinent: the recently departed Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) and Ravi Shankar (sitar), Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (singer), who died in 1997.
Others who have made inroads into American awareness in recent decades include such widely divergent musicians as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti; gamelan artists, Peking opera stars, Turkish, Mongolian, Korean, and Japanese classical performers. (Pop and rock are another story.)
I was lucky to get an early exposure to all this in Hawaii, where Kennedy Center in the East-West Center was (and is) a prominent presenter of artists from all corners of Asia, but somehow I missed out on Persian music.
Then, a couple of decades ago, Cal Performances started filling in the gap, and either directly or by reference I experienced the artistry of Hossein Alizadeh, the Aref Ensemble, Hossein Behroozinia, Faramarz Payvar, the Shanbehzadeh Ensemble, and others.
In 2001, finally the time came to hear, also in Zellerbach, one of Iran's greatest artists, Mohammad Reza Shajarian. The reason for this trip down memory lane is that Shajarian is returning to Cal Performances, on March 24. [Editor's note: This concert has been canceled.]
He is best known for singing, but Shajarian, 72 (with the hair of a 30-year-old), has many other distinctions: a national icon of musicology, a maker of Persian musical instruments, teacher and mentor of hundreds of students, a humanitarian, who led the project after the deadly 2003 earthquake in Iran to help the people of Bam, where the quake killed more than 26,000 people.
He lives in Tehran, but — along with numerous prominent artists and filmmakers — he cannot perform there. Before an interview last week, I was told not to ask questions about the situation in Iran, but at one point Shajarian himself mentioned that the government doesn't allow him to perform.
I heard five years mentioned, but the translator said, with rueful laughter, "no, not five, it's been 30 years." In a way, both figures are correct, government disapproval for the singer intensifying after the last disputed election, when his indirect protest became an issue.
Then and now, Shajarian ends every concert with "Morghe Sahar" (Bird of Dawning), which inevitably brings the audience to their feet. It is a call to the bird to sing so that the night of oppression can come to an end, and the day of liberation can begin. No names are named, no specifics provided, but the message is clear.
He gives between eight and 12 performances abroad annually, and capacity audiences at these events consist of music lovers and Iranian expatriates. At each concert, Shajarian says, performances are shaped by "the combination of ambiance and energy from the audience; besides the planned program, there is improvisation, the creation of music that comes in that moment."
Shajarian always asks to have the lights on in the theater, so he may have a good look at the audience, to establish a two-way connection. He then focuses on what he calls his central task: "to transform the beauty and pleasure of [Sufi] poetry to music."
The music originates from the ancient Persian empire, based on poetry from the 300-year-old Sufi tradition. The general impression is that of the simplicity and immediacy of Gregorian chants - telling a story, setting a mood, and conveying emotions without the artist getting in the way.
In the March 24 concert, Shajarian, the young composers and instrumentalists Pournazeri brothers, and others will perform improvisations from the radif, the modal foundation of Persian classical music.
Music to poetry by Rumi, Nezami Ganjav, Saadi, Baba Taher, and Simin Behbehani form the second half of the concert, Shajarian singing to accompaniment by Tahmoures and Sohrab Pournazeri, plus percussion with Robin Vassy, Shahab Paranj, and Hussein Zahawy.
Shajarian-created string instruments, such as delodel and shahnavaz, are played by American musicans from the Bay Area: Stephanie Bibbo, David Byron Ryther, Philip Brezina, Evan Buttemer, Shain Carrasco, Joanne De Mars, and Andrei Gorbatenko.
My first response, a dozen years ago in Zellerbach Hall, was a surprise hearing the man known as "Iran's greatest singer," then about to join Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project to represent Persian classical music (and much later to join the Kronos String Quartet for concerts).
What I heard was a musical recitation of Persian Sufi poetry in a pleasant, warm, high baritone, quite different from an opera singer in the West. It took some time to realize the special, unique excellence of Shajarian: simplicity, to begin with, lack of artifice, no reaching for effect, sincerity, singing from the heart, communicating feelings, moods.
The sound of music and instruments are "exotic" to the Western ear, taking a bit of time to comprehend and appreciate. There is obvious similarity to classical Indian music, although Western audiences may not realize that it is not the result of influence from the Subcontinent - it's the other way around.
This hypnotic sound without meter or beat, speech-like and dramatically expressive within a restrained framework, made its impact on the music of Central Asia, North Africa, all of the Arab world, and even on flamenco.
Among the many traditional Persian music instruments, the most frequently heard ones are dotar (two-string lute), kamanche (bowed spike fiddle with four metal strings), santur (zither), tar (fretted lute with six strings), and tombak (drum).