by Steve Inskeep, NPR Morning Edition, September 27, 2010

[NPR this morning has a 7 minute segment on this famous Iranian singer; click on the website for samples of his music.]

Mohammed Reza Shajarian may be the most famous singer in all of Iran.

He’s also Iran’s most famous protest singer — even though, strictly speaking, his music doesn’t directly protest the government at all.

Just before they end their fast each day during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, many Iranians or people of Iranian descent around the world listen to a prayer sung by Shajarian.

“It has such power, and the power of it has virtually nothing to do with the words,” says Iranian-American scholar Abbas Milani. When Milani hears Shajarian’s recording of the prayer, it transports him back to his youth in Iran.

“When I still hear it, I get a chill to my bone and think that this is not the voice of a mere mortal — this is the gods speaking to us.”

Iranians heard Shajarian’s voice on the radio for decades — and then, suddenly, the music stopped. Shajarian, protesting a crackdown on voters after last year’s disputed election, asked that the government cease broadcasting his songs.

To understand how he got away with that, it helps to understand just how he became a famous singer.

Shajarian was born in 1940, in Mashhad, a city in northeastern Iran. An enormous shrine to a Shiite Muslim saint dominates the city. It’s a conservative place, where Shajarian sang recitations from the Quran as a child.

Yet he was discouraged from listening to the traditional Persian music that would later make him famous.

“My dad used to say that it’s haram, it’s forbidden,” Shajarian told NPR’s Steve Inskeep through an interpreter at the conclusion of his North American tour this past spring. Shajarian said he would listen to music at his uncle’s house. “He played tar [a traditional, long-necked lute], and really enjoyed music. So when I went to his house, we both listened to the radio.”

After he grew up, Shajarian gave new life to centuries-old Persian songs. He studied with old masters, and he designed new instruments, which he made with his own hands. His lyrics are often drawn from old Persian poems. Yet Milani, head of Stanford University’s Iranian Studies program, says that in recent years, his songs have taken on new meanings.

“He ends every concert with ‘Morghe Sahar — Bird of Dawning’, and it really brings the audience to their feet,” says Milani.

The song starts with a call for the bird to begin its lament. “And by the end of the song,” Milani says, “it is asking the bird to sing, so night of oppression can come to an end, and the day of liberation can begin. And there has developed a kind of metaphoric language. Night is invariably understood to mean despotism; winter is cold days of oppression. And this song uses virtually all of these now well-known metaphoric words to ask for the rise of day of freedom and end to the night of oppression.”

“Iranian literature is primarily poetry,” explains Milani. “And Shajarian is a master of this literature and knows exactly what lines from which poems could be used at what moment in history. He says if you follow my songs, you can almost write the history of the last 40 years.”

Foir the rest of this article, click here.