Iran's Shajarian, iconic singer often at odds with authorities, dies

Tehran (AFP) –

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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" -- master in Persian -- who had been battling cancer for several years, "flew to meet his beloved (God)", his son Homayoun Shajarian, himself a famous singer, wrote on Instagram.

Soon after the announcement, several hundred fans converged on the Jam hospital in Tehran where he had been admitted a few days ago in a critical condition, AFP correspondents reported.

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

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

- Secret initiation -

Born on September 23, 1940 into a religious family in Mashhad, a Shiite holy city in northeastern Iran, Shajarian was initiated at the age of five to Islamic psalmody by his father, a reciter of the Koran.

At 12 he began his initiation -- in secret from his parents -- to the santur, a percussion-stringed instrument whose 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 first performed as a reciter of the Koran.

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

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

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

- 'Persian identity' -

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 assailed IRIB in an open letter, accusing it of using his works without his permission, of censoring them, and generally "ignoring moral values".

The maestro demanded they stop airing his voice, except for two pieces, "Monajat" and "Rabbana", psalms taken from the Koran that he only allowed to be played during Ramadan.

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

In 2009, amid a crackdown on protests against the disputed re-election of ultra-conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he was angered over the station's use of one of his songs created against the shah.

He once again demanded state radio stop broadcasting his works, declaring that his songs "are and will always remain the voice of twigs and foetuses".

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

- 'Lay down your gun' -

In his song "Zaban-e Atash" (Language of Fire), Shajarian appears to address paramilitary forces cracking down on the protesters with the line "Lay down your gun, my brother".

The influential artist declared that his songs are always related to the political and social situation in Iran, even when he sings the lyrical poems of Hafez or Rumi.

Although he was never arrested, which he claimed was due to 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 United States, where his daughter Mojgan lives.

She is also a singer but is unable to take the stage in the Islamic republic, which bans solo female acts.

President Hassan Rouhani, who had declared on several occasions during the 2013 election campaign that he adores Shajarian's voice, tried unsuccessfully to lift the ban on "Rabbana".

The song is inseparable from the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan for a large part of Iran's population.

A devotee of Persian music in its pure form, 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.