Homage to the grand master of Persian music

Singer-songwriter Reem Kelani's latest release – "The Singer Said: Bird of Dawn" – pays tribute to Mohammad Reza Shajarian. The two-song EP features Kelani's unique take on a famous Shajarian anthem and a second track symbolic of the iconic Iranian singer's life. By Richard Marcus

By Richard Marcus

Outside the Persian diaspora, Mohammad Reza Shajarian is little known. Yet, to Iranians around the world, Shajarian remains one of the most beloved and popular voices ever to have graced their country's music scene. He also carries the distinction of having actively protested against both the Shah of Iran's government and the new post-Islamic Revolution state. He didn't wait for them to ban his songs, either; he simply refused to allow either regime to play recordings of his music on state radio.

The voice of "dust and trash"

As a star of Iran's popular music scene, this was no small matter. A supporter of the Green Movement – a popular uprising that followed the 2009 election, triggered by the conviction that hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole victory from reform candidates for the presidency Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – he found it hard to stomach what the mullah regime was doing to his people. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad subsequently referred to the people protesting against the stolen election as "dust and trash", Shajarian proudly referred to himself as the voice of dust and trash.

"The Singer Said" (Qala al-Mughanni), the opening song, features lyrics penned by Mahmoud Darwish, whom Reem Kelani refers to as the national poet of Palestine. It was chosen for its thematic connection to the life and ethics of Shajarian. The song addresses the struggles of an anonymous singer, making it a fitting choice to represent Kelani's subject.

Cover of Reem Kelani's two-song EP "The Singer Said: Bird of Dawn" (source: reemkelani.bandcamp.com)
Palestinian-British singer-songwriter Reem Kelani pays tribute to the great Iranian vocal virtuoso Mohammad-Reza Shajarian (1940-2020): included with her latest release is a detailed and comprehensive trilingual booklet (Arabic, English & Farsi) featuring musicological notes, literary translations and a detailed glossary. The EP forms part of Kelani's ongoing project "This Land is Your Land", focusing on the music of the various communities with whom she lived in Kuwait, and with whom she now lives in the UK. Reem and her international band recorded their parts separately – in the UK and the U.S. – during lockdown in 2021

Written in the 1920s by one of Iran's most famous poets, Mohammad-Taqi Bahar, the second track "Bird of Dawn" is arguably the song most Iranians associate with Shajarian. Although Bahar was nominated poet laureate by those in power, that didn't stop him from joining the pro-democracy movement in the early days of the 20th century, when Iranians first began struggling to gain some sort of representational parliament.

Bahar and Shajarian shared similar backgrounds, the former had been a cleric and the latter had learned tajwid, a means of reciting the Koran. Both men were heavily influenced by their spirituality, which in turn informs the underlying passion of the lyrics to "Bird of Dawn". Although Shajarian wrote neither the music nor the lyrics, his interpretation is what lives on in the collective consciousness of the Iranian people.

A loving tribute

The lyrics (Kelani supplies them in an accompanying pamphlet in English, Arabic and Farsi) read very much like a prayer: "The tyranny of tyrants and the cruelty of hunters/Have blown my nest to the wind/Oh God! Oh Heaven! Oh Mother Nature!/Turn our dark night into bright dawn".

Alhough written a hundred years ago, these words are obviously still relevant in Iran and around the world. In her interpretation, Kelani infuses the lyrics with a passion that brings the emotional content of the piece to life. Even if you don't understand the words as sung, knowing their English meaning and hearing her voice, the intensity is overwhelming.

Kelani's talent lies in being able to infuse her work with a high level of emotion without falling into the trap of becoming melodramatic. She understands that she's not only interpreting another person's lyrics, but also another singer's trademark piece. While another vocalist might have been intimidated, or even tempted to try to outshine the original version, Kelani offers us a loving tribute – both to the song and the original artists.

No regrets

"The Singer Said" is wholly different. It tells the story of a someone who has been worn down by life. "He said to those around him:/Anything...but regret/This is how I died...standing/Standing...I died like the trees/This is how rain falls/This is how trees grow/This is how trees grow."

There's a kind of world-weary fatality to those lyrics, but also an acceptance of the world around him. You can almost visualise the lean, weather beaten visage of the person saying these words. A face carved by the elements and a body bent by the years – much like the rocks and trees he has moved through all his life.

Yet, as Kelani's interpretation makes clear, we are not to pity him. He has no regrets about his life and his choices. Once again, Kelani, who also composed the music for this piece, does a masterful job of bringing someone else's words to life. We hear the fatigue of a person who has lived a full life. It may not have been easy, and it may even have been very hard at times, but it was the life he chose for himself.

With The Singer Said: Bird Of Dawn, Reem Kelani has given us a mini biography of famed Iranian singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian. The two songs on the EP and the accompanying booklet provide an intellectual and emotional introduction to a performer who deserves to be even more well known. Hopefully this short album will encourage listeners to seek out more of his work – and hers.

Richard Marcus

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