Amir Rezvani pauses a moment before he can talk about it. When Mohammad-Reza Shajarian sings "Bird of Dawn," he does this to people.
"At the end of every concert people start to clap and ask him to sing that song," Rezvani, a psychiatry professor at Duke University, finally starts. "And when he sings that song, people sing with him and get emotional and cry."
When Shajarian returns to the stage for his encore Saturday night at the Durham Performing Arts Center, "Bird of Dawn"—or "Morgh-e Sahar," as people shout—will undoubtedly be his choice. Through his power as an activist, and as perhaps the greatest Iranian performer today, the song has become the unofficial Iranian national anthem, representing a persistent hope for liberty in the face of tyranny.
The song isn't about guns and despots. Rather, it's a plea to a caged bird to escape and to summon the sunrise with its song. But the conceit is obvious: Night is any oppressive force, and the bird is the irrepressible spirit within each person. The sunrise is freedom.
Preferring to inspire marches rather than participate in them, Shajarian's politics are expressed through his art. You won't hear this song on state radio in Tehran. To protest the current regime's 2009 crackdown on voter demonstrations, Shajarian no longer allows his music to be played over those official airwaves.
"He doesn't do this like a standard political activist or through a political party or anything like that," says Carl W. Ernst, co-director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Shajarian's ability to inspire people intrigues Ernst. In the late '70s, Shajarian was playing a concert with several other Iranian musicians in Berlin when the news of a massacre back home began to spread.
"It was announced that there was a massacre in Iran, where the Shah's troops had killed a bunch of protesters. From all accounts, the concert that followed that was on a level of intensity that was shockingly unprecedented to people," Ernst explains. "But it was through the music that the protest was being made. In other words, by asserting the humanistic values of the arts, Shajarian was defying the repression of the regime."
Shajarian's oblique political message is only one facet of his appeal; another is anatomical. His powerful, versatile voice is a formidable instrument, recently featured as one of National Public Radio's 50 Great Voices. By constricting his throat, Shajarian can emit a high, urgent muezzin's call. But he can also open himself and belt out soaring tones from his chest.
It's more than technical skill, however, that sets Shajarian apart. During Ramadan, many Iranians listen to a Shajarian prayer before breaking their fast.
"If my distance to my God is billions of light years, his voice reduces that distance tremendously. And sometimes I feel no distance; I become one with my God," Rezvani explains. "His voice fills me with pure love."
According to Ernst, Iranians have made historical and personal connections to Shajarian's voice because he has been expressing and sharing their tales of woe for so long.
"He is a musical artist who's been performing for over three decades, from before the time of the Iranian Revolution," Ernst explains. "He represents a kind of continuity with Persian culture that's extremely important to many people. In other words, he's demonstrating the vitality of an artistic tradition in this political context."
In many of his songs, Shajarian pairs ancient Persian poetry with contemporary traditional compositions, sometimes taking months to choose just the right lyric. With the knowledge of a scholar, he can recite the ghazals of Hafez and Rumi. But he matches that with a sense for the current day, even inventing many new musical instruments to extend the range and depth of his sound for contemporary ears.
For an Iranian-American audience, many of whom left Iran at the time of Ayatollah Khomeini's rise to power or because of the current political situation there, the voice, the message and the history all converge in songs like "Bird of Dawn." Shajarian seeds the auditorium with hope for the future.
Omid Safi, a religious studies professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, saw Shajarian perform in a large assembly hall in Konya, Turkey, filled with Iranians. The event was a celebration of famed Muslim mystic Rumi.
"The occasion ... turns into a massive pilgrimage," he remembers. "He saved 'Morgh-e Sahar' for the very end. I still remember turning around, away from Shajarian, and staring in full amazement at these Iranians outside of Iran, giving birth to their highest hopes and aspirations for justice, for liberty, for freedom, through the song and through Shajarian's voice. Most had tears streaming down their faces. And before long, so did I."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Expressing the inexpressible."