Shajarian – who was also an instrumentalist and composer, and embodied traditional and classical music in his country – died at 80 in Tehran after a long battle with illness.
Mohammad Reza Shajarian, whose distinctive voice quavered to traditional Persian music on state radio for years before supporting protesters following Iran's contested 2009 election, has died.
Shajarian, 80, died following a long battle with cancer, state TV reported on Thursday. Shajarian's son, Homayoun, tweeted that his father "flew" to meet the heavens.
Shajarian enlivened Iran's traditional music with his singing style, which soared, swooped, and trilled over long-known poetry set to song.
But the later years of his life saw him forced to only perform abroad after he backed those who challenged the disputed re-election of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by telling state radio to stop using his songs.
"After what happened, I said 'no way' and threatened to file a complaint against them if they continued to use my music," Shajarian told The Associated Press in 2009.
Vocalist & giant of Persian traditional music Mohammad-Reza Shajarian passed away. He was recognized as #Iran's greatest living maestro of classical music. Due to his support for popular movements & sociopolitical awareness, he was often referred to as "the voice of the people." pic.twitter.com/MzJ3aWeTNm— Reza H. Akbari (@rezahakbari) October 8, 2020
Battle with cancer
In March 2016, Shajarian revealed to fans he had been receiving treatment for kidney cancer for some 15 years, both inside and outside of Iran.
Highlighting his importance even then, Iran's Culture and Health Ministers announced they would follow his case.
Shajarian's political stand surprised many in Iran, especially among the young who considered him a crooner of a past age.
Though he once changed his name to avoid his conservative father’s opposition to his singing, Shajarian supported Iran’s movement against the American-backed Shah.
He resigned from his position with Iranian state radio ahead of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
After the revolution, it was Shajarian's powerful voice on the radio that sang a prayer before sunset during the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.
He sang it a cappella, like a call coming from a mosque minaret, with teeming emotion that raised goosebumps even through scratchy radio broadcasts. In sold-out concerts, fans pelted him with roses.
Fans of Iran’s legendary singer, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, gathering in front of the hospital in which he passed away earlier today. pic.twitter.com/eGmpO4bSQ0— Rana Rahimpour (@ranarahimpour) October 8, 2020
Support for opposition
Supported by the apparatus of Iran's cleric-run system, no one expected to hear his voice rise to support the opposition in the unrest surrounding the 2009 balloting.
At the time, Ahmadinejad won a contested vote count that sparked massive protests and a security force crackdown that saw thousands detained, dozens killed and others tortured.
In September 2009, just months after the election, Shajarian sang "Zaban e Atash o Ahan," which translates from Farsi as "The Language of Fire and Iron."
In it, the singer pleaded, "Lay down your gun. Come, sit down, talk, hear. Perhaps the light of humanity will get through to your heart too."
Shajarian then told state radio to stop using his songs, which they did. Suppression of artists had been common following the Islamic Revolution, though the 2009 crisis brought on a crackdown unseen in years.
"It's much greater now because of the stand most of the artists have taken against them," Shajarian told the AP in 2009.
"For now, they’re moving very calmly. But in the future, I know there will be a confrontation between the artists and this government."
In the years that followed, Shajarian performed traditional music for Iranians abroad and later returned to Iran to teach singing to many of his adoring fans.
Shajarian was born in 1940 in the religious city of Mashhad in northwest Iran, some 1,000 km east of the capital, Tehran. During his childhood, he got his start in singing through reciting the Muslim holy book, the Quran.
Throughout his life, he received a series of accolades, including awards from the United Nations' cultural agency, UNESCO.
In 1999, the agency gave him the Picasso Award and in 2006, he received its Mozart Medal in honour of his contributions to the world of music. Shajarian also worked to create new instruments, similar to those played in historic Persia.
Shajarian was more than a singer, his iconic voice became the cry of a nation struggling for justice for over a century. #Iran & all Iranians mourn his loss. In times of despair, his song reminded us to hope for the coming of the dawn.— Assal Rad (@AssalRad) October 8, 2020
هرگز نمیرد آنکه دلش زنده شد به عشق #شجریان pic.twitter.com/7CaFsadDyM
Cancer, a 'guest' in life
Even near the end of his life, Shajarian kept a sense of humour, appearing in an online video marking the Iranian New Year of Nowruz sporting a shaved head and referring to his cancer as a "guest" in his life.
"I am familiar with this guest for the past 15 years. We are friends and I cut my hair based on its order to reach an understanding," he said. "After that, I will come back and will continue my artistic works."
Upon the news of Shajarian's passing, many Iranians offered their condolences on social networks. The official IRNA news agency called Shajarian a "unique" music artist.
The TV report said Shajarian will be buried in the northeastern town of Toos, about 750 km northeast of the capital, Tehran, near his birthplace, the city of Mashhad in Khorasan Razavi province.
We lost Mohammad Reza #Shajarian, maestro of Persian classical music. His voice was a balm and an anthem for millions of people facing personal and political difficulties. My favorite song of his: 'Tulips bloom from the blood of the nation's youth'. https://t.co/DCmz9NlQBO— Sam Zarifi (@SZarifi) October 8, 2020