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Remembering Iranian singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

MOHAMMAD REZA SHAJARIAN: (Singing in non-English language).

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A revered singer of Iran has died. Mohammad Reza Shajarian was 80 and so famous in Iran, he was untouchable even by the authoritarian government. To protest a disputed election in 2009, he asked the government to take his popular music off the radio, and they did. It was a big deal because his music was a kind of soundtrack to Iranian life. Shajarian grew up in a conservative family that forbade music. He once told me through an interpreter how he discovered traditional songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHAJARIAN: (Through interpreter) The first time was through the radio in my uncle's house.

INSKEEP: Your uncle felt differently about the music, I suppose?

SHAJARIAN: (Through interpreter) Yes, he actually played tar. And really enjoyed music. So when I went to his house, we both listened to the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAJARIAN: (Singing in non-English language).

INSKEEP: Once he grew up, Shajarian gave new life to centuries-old Persian songs. His lyrics were often drawn from old Persian poems. Yet the scholar Abbas Milani says that in recent years, his songs have taken on new meanings.

ABBAS MILANI: He ends every concert with "Morghe Sahar" - "Bird of Dawning."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORGHE SAHAR")

SHAJARIAN: (Singing in non-English language).

MILANI: And it really brings the audience to their feet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORGHE SAHAR")

SHAJARIAN: (Singing in non-English language).

MILANI: Bird of dawning, commence your lament. And by the end of the song, it is asking the bird to sing so that night of oppression can come to an end, and the day of liberation can begin. And there has developed a kind of a metaphoric language. Night is invariably understood to mean despotism; winter, 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 an end to the night of oppression.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORGHE SAHAR")

SHAJARIAN: (Singing in non-English language).

INSKEEP: In the days before Mohammad Reza Shajarian died, people outside his hospital gathered to sing verses from that song, "Bird Of Dawn." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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