The Persian nightingale and the flowers of hope

Shahram Nazeri is the undisputed master of setting Rumi's poetry to music. At a recent concert in Teheran, the renowned musician sang his audience into a state of ecstasy and gave voice to the Iranians' hopes for a brighter cultural future. After several barren years, the cultural scene is indeed showing tentative signs of change. By Massoud Schirazi

By Massoud Schirazi

It is midwinter in Teheran, and the concert season is underway. For two long months there were no large concerts – or at least no joyful ones – anywhere in the country. In the month of Moharram, during which Shia Muslims mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, happy occasions and music for entertainment purposes are not deemed appropriate. Traditional restaurants refrain from live performances and teahouses turn the background music down. The month after that, Safar, is the time of Arba'een, the fortieth day after Hussein's passing, and the anniversary of Mohammed's death, which makes such musical events equally taboo.

Among the big names in Iranian music who have started announcing their concerts again in newspaper ads and on posters is Shahram Nazeri. Alongside Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Ali Reza Ghorbani, Nazeri is one of the most popular classical singers in Iran. The "New York Times" once called him "the Persian nightingale".

The cultural face of Iran

Shahram Nazeri's benefit concert for victims of leprosy in the festival hall of the Milad tower is soon sold out. Audience numbers at performances by popular singers like Nazeri are very high in Teheran. For the size of the city, Teheran's concert scene is rather meagre, as most of the artists left the country after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Others – like Shahram Nazeri – stayed and continued to lend Iran a cultural face, even under the difficult conditions of censorship.

Shahram Nazeri was born into a Kurdish artistic family in 1950. He read his first poems as a boy on his mother's lap and his father, a well-known singer and setar player, introduced him to classical Persian music. At the age of nine, Nazeri first performed on local radio in his hometown of Kermanshah. He later moved to Teheran to study Persian art music, learning from the great masters in the field.

It was during the early years of his career that Nazeri developed a great passion for the work of Jalal ad-Din Rumi, the greatest of Persia's mystical poets. Nazeri was the first well-known singer to experiment with the poetry of Mawlawi (as Rumi is known in Iran). He began setting Mawlawi's work to music 35 years ago, creating a musical style of his own in the process.

Shahram Nazeri on stage (source: MEHR)
Shahram Nazeri (source: MEHR)

Keeping Rumi's spirit alive

Shahram Nazeri has since made over 40 albums, containing mainly Rumi verses. Many of them have been huge successes in Iran and become well known internationally among lovers of spiritual music. Nazeri's album "Gol-e sad barg" (The Hundred-Petalled Flower), which he recorded to mark Mowlawi's 800th birthday, is one of the best-selling albums in Iran's history.

Shahram Nazeri's versatile voice is perfectly suited to the breadth of emotions and moods expressed in Rumi's poetry: passionate and effervescent when he sings from the love-inflamed ghazals of the Divan-e-Schams and quietly mysterious in verses in which the seeker plumbs the depths of his soul.

Shahram Nazeri usually sings with an ensemble of traditional instruments. He has performed with the great masters of Persian music such as Mohammed-Reza Lotfi, Kayhan Kalhor and Hossein Alizadeh. His son, Hafez Nazeri, is now also a well-known singer in Iran in his own right, making a name for himself internationally with music projects on Rumi.

Focus on Kurdistan

It is the night of the concert. The musicians from the Mawlawi ensemble, playing setar, tar, santur, oud, tonbak and daf, are already in their seats. Shahram Nazeri takes to the stage and speaks to the audience. His voice is quiet to begin with, almost a little uncertain. He explains the evening's programme: he will begin with some of his classic Rumi pieces and then move on to Kurdish folk songs.

The concert begins with calm, solemn poems from Nazeri's repertoire. "Come, come again, whoever you are, come again" – anyone who understands Farsi can't fail to succumb to the beautiful union of words and sounds in this Mawlawi poem, a plea for tolerance and humanity.

Nazeri devotes the second part of the evening to the music of his own region, Kurdistan. He enthuses to the audience about the diversity in the Kurdish west of Iran. "Every village in Kurdistan has its own style of music," says Nazeri, explaining that this is a unique phenomenon in Iran, and in the world at large. Kurdistan is a culturally diverse region that has preserved an impressive folk culture in its towns and villages, in which Sufism plays an important role.

The Kurdish pieces are different to the poems in the first part of the concert. They seem more archaic and have catchy melodies and rhythms. For the last piece – a particularly lively Kurdish folk song – the musicians get the utmost out of their instruments. The audience starts to move, a euphoric atmosphere suddenly spreads through the auditorium.

Ecstatic reception

By the end of the piece; the crowd is cheering and clapping. Gripped by the music's lightness, the members of the audience jump to their feet and wave their arms above their heads. Many of them take out handkerchiefs and wave them in the air, some women using the end of their loose headscarves. Shahram Nazeri whips up the crowd with his virtuoso voice. Such a lively, joyful atmosphere is unusual for a concert of traditional music.

After the song, Nazeri addresses the audience again. He has rarely experienced such ecstasy in his 30 years on stage, he tells them. "Let's take it as a good omen," he says, alluding to the gradual thaw the Iranians have been feeling since the beginning of Hassan Rouhani's presidency. "May the joy, the smiles on the faces and the flowers of hope blossoming in people's hearts at the moment last a long time," he says in typical Persian style. These words are greeted by protracted applause.

If one takes Hassan Rouhani at his word, something really does seem to be moving in Iran's cultural policy. In January, the new president spoke to a meeting of national artists in Teheran's Vahdat Hall, saying: "No real art can come about in an atmosphere that is not free (...) It is the government's task not to intervene with the arts."

The first significant step, Rouhani announced, will be the revival of the Teheran Symphony Orchestra, which his predecessor Ahmadinejad had closed down. It looks like Teheran's musical landscape might be enriched by new concerts – as long as it's not the month of Moharram.

Massoud Schirazi

© 2014

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara