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Persian classical music mourns a master

The death of virtuoso Mohammad Reza Lotfi marks the end of an era.

Last updated: 20 May 2014 07:05
Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
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A singer gestures as musicians play during the opening ceremony of the 18th World Sacred Music Festival in Fes [AFP]

The recent death of Iranian master musician Mohammad Reza Lotfi (1947-2014) on May 2 at the age of 68 marks a crucial turning point in the history of classical Persian music and its spectacular rise and fall as a performing public art.

Lotfi was a Tar and Setar virtuoso who had collaborated with prominent Iranian vocalists Mohammad Reza Shajarian, Shahram Nazeri, and others and along with a handful of other master musicians of his generation had transformed Persian music from its slumbering, sedate and secluded courtly and mystical milieu into a massive scale public and vastly popular art form. It is impossible to imagine the social history of Iran of the last half a century and through the thick and thin of a cataclysmic revolution and a bloody war without thinking of the definitive presence of classical Persian music as reconceived by Lotfi's generation of master musicians.

Mohammad Reza Lotfi was part of a generation of classical musicians who exponentially expanded the public sphere upon which Persian classical music found and performed itself. This proud possession of a rich and diversified culture entered the public sphere in earnest in the course of the Constitutional revolution of 1906-1911, and with the establishment of Tehran Radio in 1940s and subsequently Iranian National television in 1960s and the Shiraz Art Festival in the 1970s reached its spectacular zenith.

It was during the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979 that through the instrumental role of musicians like Mohammad Reza Lotfi and his ensemble classical music joined the revolutionary cause. During the stormy days of the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979, Lotfi took the classical Persian music directly into the heartbeat of the cataclysmic event...

Today lovers of Persian music remember the young Lotfi and Shajarian and their fellow musician Naser Farhangfar's confident and ambitious visages from their legendary performance of the tasking Rast Panjgah scale in Shiraz Art Festival in 1975. From that iconic moment at the mausoleum of Hafez in Shiraz Persian classical music began a long and loving rendezvous with contemporary Iranian social history.

Persian music into public limelight

Lotfi and his fellow masters Parviz Meshkatian (1955-2009) and Hossein Alizadeh (born 1951) were chiefly responsible for pulling classical Persian music out of its secluded and mysterious hideouts into public limelight. Under their innovative and daring musicianship, vocalists Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Shahram Nazeri dominated the scene of classical Persian music like the Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo of Iran. They were all the troubadours mapping and measuring the emerging topography of Iranian cultural history.

It was during the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979 that through the instrumental role of musicians like Mohammad Reza Lotfi and his ensemble classical music joined the revolutionary cause. During the stormy days of the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979, Lotfi took the classical Persian music directly into the heartbeat of the cataclysmic event and his by now legendary "Shabnavard" became a hallmark of the revolution.

Lotfi was also there during the Iran-Iraq war when his collaboration with another towering vocalist, the young Shahram Nazeri, produced a musical jeremiad for those bloody eight years of wasted lives. From the Shiraz Art Festival of the 1970s through the Iranian revolution at the end of the same decade and culminating in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s classical Persian music was narrowly interwoven into an ever-expansive public domain.

At the same time, Lotfi and his fellow musicians were responsible for turning the capabilities of Persian classical music to the iconoclastic poetry of Nima Yushij (1895-1960) - an exceptionally difficult task. Nima had pulled classical Persian poetry through a radical revolution in its received prosody. Persian music had gone through no such formal revolution. Politically progressive, socially conscious, and artistically gifted musicians like Lotfi were eager and rising to meet the challenge.

When in 1990 the leading Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou (1925-2000) severely ridiculed and categorically dismissed Persian classical music, Lotfi defended it and the debate actually brought the classical music into the main domain of public debate.

Lotfi left Iran in 1986 and spent almost two decades of his life in the US. He returned to Iran in 2006 but his return eventually dwindled into irrelevance. Iran had drastically changed during these two decades and Lotfi's public disapproval of his former colleague Shajarian (who was now vastly popular across a wide spectrum of Iranians in and out of their country) did not help his popularity.

Lotfi's musicianship

Meanwhile his own cohorts, such as the other master musician Parviz Meshkatian, openly expressed their disappointment of Lotfi's musicianship. Such musicians as Alizadeh, Meshkatian, and Shajarian grew in their popularity, while Lotfi never regained the magic of his earlier presence after his return.    

The disintegration of this generation of classical musicians was coterminous with a decidedly hostile environment the ruling regime had created for Iranian musicians. The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khamenei, is known for being critical of joyous and playful musicfrom his juridical perspective, now made into the inhibitive mandates trying to legislate a rich and effervescent musical tradition.

Many musicians left Iran and quite a number of them ended up in Los Angeles catering to the whims of an expat community increasingly indulgent in its nostalgias for a homeland that was no more. Many serious musicians stayed in Iran, endured the calamities of the censorial policies...

Under these circumstances many musicians left Iran and quite a number of them ended up in Los Angeles catering to the whims of an expat community increasingly indulgent in its nostalgias for a homeland that was no more. Many serious musicians stayed in Iran, endured the calamities of the censorial policies and performed in what ever capacity they could. They would occasionally come out of Iran and perform with relative freedom for the enthused expat gatherings.

Iranians continue to love their musicians and keep the fluttering flame of a magnificent aspect of their cultural heritage alive. But the death of Lotfi marks the end of a palpable, effervescent and engaged musical interlude when master musicians and an admiring public shared unforgettable memories of their homeland in tumult. That esprit de corps is no more. Inside Iran, the tightly controlled public sphere does not allow for that spirit to return (or even for female vocalists to sing freely) except under its own supervision and for its own propaganda purposes.

Outside Iran, Persian music is staged either as an ornamental museum piece for the Oriental fantasies of foreigners and their "ethnomusicologists" or else for the expat nostalgia of bygone years.

The younger generation is drawn to the subversive pleasures of a new generation of musicians like Mohsen Namjoo and Shahin Najafi. Banned inside their own homeland, unconditionally loved or severely criticised by their detractors, these younger musicians mark a vastly different era when the simulacrum of the public sphere in the virtual space offers a mere simulation of the real forces of history.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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