When protests broke out in Iran in 2009 over the fraudulent presidential election, one of the country’s leading artists stood up against the regime and its violent repression of demonstrators. Vocalist Mohammad Reza Shajarian recorded a song with lyrics addressed to government militias attacking people in the streets: “Lay down your guns. Come, sit down, talk, hear. Perhaps the light of humanity will get through to your heart.”
With mass protests again flaring in Iran in recent months—perhaps the most serious challenge to the fundamentalist regime since the Islamic Revolution of 1979—Shajarian’s example and solidarity with the people remain as vital as ever.
Shajarian’s life and the unique stature he attained in Iranian culture are explored in the Oscar-contending documentary The Voice of Dust and Ash, directed by first-time Iranian American filmmaker Mandana Biscotti. The director’s father had been friends with Shajarian—or “Ostad” as he is often called, an honorific meaning maestro—since before the revolution, and Biscotti grew up with his music.
“He is an Iranian national treasure,” Biscotti observed at a recent panel discussion of her film in West Hollywood. “I sought to do something to tell his story and do his legacy justice and really just tell our history. I very quickly, after starting to film, realized that his life really synced up with a lot of Iranian history and our watershed moments. And so I felt that it was very important to memorialize that in the medium.”
As the film explores, Shajarian’s first public appearances came as a boy when he recited the Quran in front of enormous crowds. This was before the 1953 coup engineered by the U.S. and Britain that toppled the prime minister and installed the Shah as monarchical ruler. As a teen, Shajarian studied Persian classical music—without the knowledge of his father, who didn’t approve of music. In the 1960s he gained fame as a vocalist, at first using a pseudonym to avoid dishonoring his family.
“He had this incredible voice. He could sing almost a full register above Luciano Pavarotti,” Biscotti tells Deadline. “NPR named him as one of the 50 greatest voices of all time. Just from a musician’s perspective, he was truly phenomenal and gifted.”
In Iran under the Shah, Western music surged in popularity, but Ostad eschewed the modern in favor on something rooted in his country’s history—songs based on Persian poetry, accompanied by traditional instruments like the stringed tar. Even during the Shah’s reign he showed a willingness to risk the consequences of standing on principle—after the horror of Black Friday in 1978, when the Shah’s troops killed dozens (and possibly many more) protesters, he signed a letter refusing to work for the government-controlled radio service.
When the Shah was overthrown in 1979 and Ayatollah Khomeini took power, the religious leader promptly banned music, calling it a subversive influence. The ayatollah declared in July of 1979, “If you want independence for your country, you must suppress music and not fear to be called old‐fashioned. Music is a betrayal of the nation and of youth.”
Despite the prohibition on music performances, Ostad would not be silenced. He performed at foreign embassies in Iran—oases where the regime’s dictates did not apply. The film suggests Shajarian’s immense popularity and the fact that he sang traditional Persian music and hadn’t been associated with Western pop caused the regime to backtrack on its ban and permit “ideologically acceptable music.”
Ostad worked subtle criticism of the government into his music, cloaked in poetry from revered Persian figures like the 14th century master Hafez.
“His selection of those poems that were relevant at that ancient time and also still relevant in his time when he put them in his music was truly phenomenal, and was one of the skills that allowed him to circumvent the censors,” Biscotti says. “He was really shrewd about it… You really can’t knock Hafez when that’s what he’s using as far as his lyrics.”
Shajarian risked arrest by refusing to allow Iran’s national anthem to be played at his concerts. And he became known for a different anthem, performing the ballad “Morghe Sahar” (translated as “Nightingale” or “Bird of Dawn”), as the last song of every concert. It came to be referred to as the “Unofficial National Anthem for Iranian Freedom.”
The title of the film comes from a pivotal moment in Ostad’s life. In 2009 during the Green Movement protests in Iran, he moved from subtle forms of protest to more direct criticism. When Iran’s then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad trashed demonstrators, labeling them “dust and ash”—essentially riffraff–Ostad publicly declared that he was “the voice of dust and ash,” aligning himself with the protesters.
In response, the government barred him from state media, prevented him from performing publicly, and he was driven into exile, spending most of his last years in California.
The interviews for The Voice of Dust and Ash were conducted in California and Iran. Ostad did not hold back in those intimate conversations.
“Our society wants basic freedoms, and in our society this freedom does not exist,” he said of Iran. “Freedom of religion, freedom of the arts does not exist in my country.”
What the regime ultimately found so threatening about Ostad was that he espoused humanist values instead of religious dogma. He reminded his fellow countrymen of traditions and ways of thinking that predated the revolution by decades and centuries, and he asserted that Iran’s true identity was as “a culture of peace, friendship, love and tranquility.”
“That was his truth, that was what he followed. And that was his pursuit for most of his life and artistic career,” Biscotti notes. “It’s not something you’re freely allowed to say in the Islamic Republic. But that was his truth.”