Many religious communities are engaged in the subtle dance of figuring out how to hang on to the very best of their traditions while also adapting to an ever-changing pace of modern life. The quest always seems to be similar: how to be timely and timeless, how to take the best of what our religious traditions have to offer, and deploy it in a way that is relevant to our lives today.
I recently had the chance to have a conversation with someone who was grappling with the same question in a different medium: music.
The conversation was with Mohammad-Reza Shajarian. Shajarian is not yet a household name in the United States, though he was recognized by NPR as one of the 50 greatest voices in the world today.
He has been called the “Pavarotti of Iran,” a compliment to both him and Pavarotti. UNESCO recognized his contribution by awarding him the Picasso Award, alongside Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Yehudi Menuhin.
In Iran, however, Shajarian is an icon, a one-man embodiment of culture.
Shajarian is easily the most popular Iranian vocalist over the last century, and possibly the last few centuries. He is so beloved that his own unique style of reciting much beloved classic poetry is now imitated by hundreds of other vocalists. He is, in short, a living legend who has been performing for some 48 years professionally. Now in his 70’s, he is that rare legend who is still at the peak of his powers.
Shajarian has the undisputed authority of tradition: he is loved by all Iranians, by secular types and by religious types. Iranians who love their Islam front and center love him, and his recitation of the “Rabbana” prayer [“Our Lord”] that has been associated with the experience of Ramadan: for decades now Iranian TV and radio come to a halt during the time of breaking the fast, playing Shajarian's distinctive voice and prayer. For many Iranians, it is impossible to think of Ramadan without also thining of Shajarian's voice.
Secular Iranians who want to run away from the Islam of the Ayatollahs still love Shajarian and his masterful recitation of the much beloved poetry of Hafez and Rumi. In fact, Shajarian’s recitation of the “Dawn time Bird” song has become something of the anthem of the opposition movement in Iran.
So here is what is fascinating about Shajarian’s mastery of tradition: he is not bound by it. In fact, in my interview with Shajarian, he went to great lengths to talk about how what is important is to be authentic, not tradition. Shajarian emphasized that he wants to have music that is authentic, that comes from the heart, and reaches the heart of the listener. Furthermore, he recognizes that not everything that is traditional is authentic. Every generation, Shajarian asserts, takes the “tradition” of the previous generations, and modifies it, adapts it, adopts it, until it feels authentic to their own times. Then the next tradition comes along and takes that adaptation and treats it as the “tradition” that must be in turned adapted and mediated.
Shajarian’s discussion is not abstract; he has invented 16 new string instruments, because he found that there were musical gaps in the existing instruments. So he lines up instruments that have been around for more than a thousand years with instruments that he has just invented. And the combination works, in a stunning fashion. You can see some of the new instruments and Shajarian's discussion here:
It seems to me that if more religious communities adopted this position of recognizing the difference between tradition and authenticity, we would have a much lovelier religious life. Rather than manufacturing a sense of tradition that often flies in the face of history and the needs of today, it seems much wiser and more compassionate to focus on how to live authentically as religious human beings.
You can read the interview with Shajarian here: