Shahram Nazeri: The Broken Lionheart of Iranian Music
By: Ahmad Zaatari
Published Friday, January 20, 2012
Shahram Nazeri’s musical experimentation faced challenges in Iran before and after the 1979 revolution. His 1984 collaboration record revitalized Iranian classical music and inspired some young Iranians to take up an instrument.
In his book, Stories and Thoughts from the Teachings of Theologists, Bahraini writer Abdul Azim al-Muhtadi, currently under arrest for participating in the Bahrain revolution, recalls an incident that occurred in 1990 during a concert held by Iranian singer Shahram Nazeri in Albert Hall, London.
The late Shia guide Mohammad Fadel al-Nakrani, who was preparing for heart surgery at that time, was very distressed when he found out that Nazeri was going to sing on the 19th day of Ramadan. This was the day Imam Ali bin Abi Taleb sustained the fatal injuries that led to him being a martyr.
However, Nazeri, toward the end of the evening, commemorated the martyred Imam. The story goes that al-Nakrani healed so quickly his doctors declared it a medical miracle.
Regardless of whether this story is completely accurate or not, it is an example of the strong relationship between the Shia belief structure and singing.
Shahram Nazeri was born in 1950 to a Kurdish family living among Armeninans, Bahais, and Jews in the ethnically diverse city of Kermanshah in Northern Iran.
Inspired by this diverse environment, he released a new record, Amir Kabir – his latest work in a fruitful career that generated more than forty studio and live-performance records.
Nazeri and maestros such as Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Hossein Alizadeh, helped revitalize Iranian music by creating modern musical celebrations of cultural heritage that could be enjoyed by international audiences.
Nazeri’s interest in Iranian musical culture was apparent from his early years. His mother, who had a beautiful voice herself, introduced him to such Iranian maestros as Abdullah Davani and Mahmud Karimi.
His ability as an artist was immediately apparent when he took part in a talent show on state television at the age of 11.
During the reign of the Shah in Iran, there was little place for cultural music in society. Iran was witnessing a trend toward experimental and modern music completely free of any cultural references. Between the years 1967-1977, the city of Shiraz hosted the Shiraz Arts Festival that attracted experimental musicians such as John Cage and the Greek artist Iannis Xenakis.
However, after the 1979 revolution, Nazeri also had to contend with a conservative movement that opposed his experimentation with cultural heritage.
Nazeri was a pioneer in creating songs from the poems of the legendary Jalal ad-Din Rumi. He also experimented with these poems by adding Kurdish and Azeri verses and using Western instruments in his performances.
In 1984, he released the record Gol-e Sadbarg (The One Hundred Petalled Rose) in collaboration with Jalal Zolfonoun and Reza Ghassemi that revitalised the genre of Iranian classical music.
The record contained the poems for Rumi, Hafez and Attar sung in Nazeri's brilliantly profound voice to the sound of only two instruments: the traditional sitar and the daf.
The record had a noticible impact on Iranian audiences. Mehrdad Torabi, a famous sitar instructor, explained that thousands of young Iranians flooded musical schools to learn how to play the instrument. The song Khtwa b Khtwa (Step by Step) became popular with audiences demanding to hear it at every concert.
Nazeri toured the world from Tokyo to America, accompanied by his son Hafez, named after the famous poet. He also played for huge crowds in Iran, including performing before an audience of 140,000 at one concert.
He received numerous local and international awards such as France’s prestigious Chevaller des Arts et Lettres and was named Best Singer of Sufi Music by the Iranian Ministry of Culture.
In his latest album, Amir Kabir, Nazeri continues his celebration of Iranian heritage. This time, however, his work carries a political message. On the album he performs a song based on a poem by Fereydoon Moshiri. This poem was written in honor of Amir Kabir, the chief minister to Naser al-Din Shah Qajar and one of Iran’s most famous politicians. More importantly, Amir Kabir is considered to be one of the first pro-reform politicians in Iran.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.