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The Voice of Dust and Ash

Movie Review: ‘The Voice of Dust and Ash’

The Voice of Dust and Ash is one of those remarkable documentary movies which in the process of telling one person’s story manages to give audiences an important history lesson. In this case the person is Maestro Mohammad Reza Shajarian, one of the most important cultural figures in 20th-century Iran. 

Mohammad Reza Shajarian

In telling us Shajarian’s history, director Mandana Biscotti recounts the story of Iran since the end of World War Two and shows how they are entwined. After the Americans and the British backed a coup to overthrow the postwar elected government which wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil and gas, the monarchy in the form of the the Shah of Iran was placed in charge. 

Initially, political leadership mattered little to Shajarian. His training wasn’t in music but in learning how to recite the Quran for public events and prayers. In fact his father was a very religious man who was opposed to the idea of his son performing music – very orthodox Muslims believe vocal music to be against God.

Despite familial opposition Shajarian began to sing publicly and fell in love with classical Persian/Iranian music. At the time when he was first coming to prominence, Western music was making its influence felt in Iran – both popular and classical. The Shah’s wife organized massive cultural events featuring musicians from all over the world while giving the traditions of Iran short shrift.

However, Shajarian was such a compelling and dynamic performer that he, alongside the musicians who played with him, kept the music in the public eye. Unfortunately, Shajarian and other musicians soon fell afoul of the Shah’s repressive regime, which eventually refused to allow their music to be played on state radio.

The Revolution

Shajarian’s life, like many others in Iran, changed for the worse with the coming of the theocracy that now rules the country. The movie shows how he managed to push the government to allow music to be performed in public after they had initially banned it. However, his loyalty to his art soon brought him into conflict with the government. The movie cites many instances of the small ways he resisted and defied government edicts.

When touring outside of Iran he allowed women to perform with him on stage and played songs advocating freedom. He would repeatedly close all his concerts with his most famous song, “Morghe Sahar,” The Bird of Dawn, which tells the story of a caged nightingale who is called upon to break free and sing a song of freedom. The song is still the unofficial national anthem of Iran.

When the Iranian clerics refused to accept the results of the 2010 election, which would have seen a moderate president installed, the people took to the streets in what was called The Green Wave. When the reactionary president who was overseeing the crackdown on the people protesting called them merely dust and ash, detritus to be swept away, Shajarian spoke out and said he was the voice of dust and ash. It was around then that his music was banned on state radio.

This is an extraordinary movie about an incredible man. He made art in the face of government indifference and repression under two successive regimes and never lost his spirit or the will to be creative and speak the truth. He was a force of nature and a symbol of freedom for Iranians both at home and living in exile. 

Biscotti has done a remarkable job of combining archival footage of both Shajarian and Iranian history with interviews to create a moving and informative movie. As we watch the news and see brave men and women risking their lives on the streets of Iran we can almost hear Shajarian’s voice singing out with them. 

The maestro may have succumbed to cancer a couple of years ago, but his spirit lives on. The Voice of Dust and Ash brings the life and times of Maestro Mohammad Reza Shajarian to life with passion and joy. It shows us the icon, but it also shows us the man who embodies so many ideals we all hold dear. See this movie if you have the opportunity.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of three books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion" and "Introduction to Greek Mythology For Kids". Aside from Blogcritics he contributes to and his work has appeared in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and has been translated into numerous languages in multiple publications.

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