Shajarian’s vocal gift transcends language

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      The voice curls, swoops, and soars. It arches skyward, then plunges thrillingly. It curves through radiant arabesques, before hitting a single note so true that one’s whole being shivers in recognition. The singer caresses each phrase as an inspired jazz vocalist would, and yet his approach is as controlled as the greatest operatic tenor’s. He is, in short, among the world’s finest performers—and yet he’s almost unknown beyond his native land and the pockets of his compatriots that, dispossessed by revolution, have scattered around the world.

      This may be about to change. A talent as vast as Mohammad Reza Shajarian’s cannot stay undiscovered for long, and when the Iranian master comes to the Orpheum on Sunday (May 4), it’s likely that there’ll be more than a few in the crowd who don’t speak Farsi. His is a voice, after all, that transcends language.

      Still, when the Straight reaches Shajarian at home in Tehran, communication is not always easy. We’re at the North Vancouver home of master musician Hossein Behroozinia, hovering over a crackly speakerphone. My questions are being rephrased in Farsi by Behroozinia’s son Houman, who then translates Shajarian’s answers. The process is laborious and mildly nerve-racking.

      Perhaps it would be better just to listen to him sing.

      Shajarian agrees. He stresses that he doesn’t perform anything frivolous. If he’s not singing the lyrics of such Sufi masters as Rumi, Hafez, and Saadi, he’s interpreting the works of contemporary Iranian poets.

      “Sometimes you don’t even have to understand the lyrics, you just have to understand the voice,” he says.

      Still, literature is a key component of what Shajarian does—whether on-stage with Behroozinia and the Ava Ensemble or practising his other art, calligraphy. In both of his chosen media, the trick is to give the word physical form, and this Shajarian does with uncommon skill. And in both, the aim is to draw out the hidden nuances of a poem or lyric, often by repeating it with subtle changes of emphasis. The process requires confidence, virtuosity, and a deep understanding of the fundamentals.

      Those are the qualities that make Shajarian an Iranian national treasure, explains Hossein Behroozinia, once the master singer is off the phone.

      “Shajarian is special for all Iranians, especially musicians,” he says. “He knows everything about the Persian repertoire, and he knows everything about Iranian poetry. That’s why the people of Iran know him as a legendary singer.”

      Behroozinia is something of a treasure himself. Although still underappreciated in Canada, which has been his home for almost a decade, he’s among the most forward-thinking composers in Iranian music. In addition to helping assemble the Ava Ensemble, he was a cofounder of the acclaimed Dastan Ensemble, has collaborated with poets Coleman Barks and Robert Bly, and is preparing a symphonic work for the Lií¨ge Philharmonic Orchestra in Belgium. He’s also single-handedly responsible for rescuing the barbat, the ancient Persian ancestor of the oud, lute, and guitar, from near

      “With this instrument, because the neck is short, it’s difficult,” he explains, “but you can have more vibration.” And in the company of Shajarian, along with the singer’s son Homayoun on percussion and three other Iranian virtuosos, those vibrations will be not just good, but great.