Ostad Jamal Vafaei was born on June 7th, 1940. His father was musically minded and supported his children’s interest in the arts.
When young Jamal was in 2nd grade, at 8 years old, his musical talents were already recognized.his musical talents were already recognized. He was selected to sing prayers and verses from the Koran on a regular basis, standing at the front of the student body procession, for all to hear on a daily basis – following which all the students would go to class and start their day. There was also a sound system that would broadcast his voice to the adjacent school, which was an all-girls school. It was not long before other schools heard of young Jamal’s beautiful daily songs and, soon enough, he was making weekly trips to all the different local schools and singing for them. By third grade, Young Jamal earned further recognition as a well known children’s radio station (Radio Koodak) contacted him to have him sing for them. The radio host, Mr. Sepi Mokhtad, would tell stories, and then would say “hello children, we will now have little Jamal from Taraghi grammar school sing for you.” This continued for another 5 years, by now with a small orchestra of young teenage musicians, including Parviz Jahanpanah, Mehdi Rezaei, Mr. Mofatinzadeh, Mr. Golbas playing zarb, Mr. Adili playing flute, and another individual on santoor. . This small group would meet weekly and write, practice, and in the same week, sing their songs at the weekly children’s radio show, for which they eventually became famous across the entire country. He had the added pleasure of hearing the children in his school sing the same songs of his that were broadcast on the radio through this children’s orchestra. After a few years, he progressed to Radio Javanan, where he would sing one song per week for a much larger orchestra, with songs written by Mr. Mofatinzadeh and Mr. Jahanpanah.
He continued this until age 14, at which point he was called to the office of a senior and very famous official in the Iranian radio office – Mr. Moshir Homayoun Shahrdar – who half-jokingly told the now teenage Vafaei that he was “an old man” and should not continue in Radio Iran Javananshow, but his talents were so great that he should go study under one of the great Persian classical music masters for 10 – 12 years, and then come back to fulfill his potential in more prominent national radio programs.
Young Jamal followed Mr. Moshir Homayoun Shahrdar’s instructions and with the help of Dr. Sarahang Abdolrahim Etemad Moghaddam - a veteran doctor and a principal of sorts in the music class of Ostad Esmail Mehrtash, Vafaei was introduced to Ostad Mehrtash himself. Ostad Mehrtash was a master tar player and also one of the most highly regarded classical Persian music instructors. Ostad Mehrtash had just finished his master training of the famous singers Marzieh and Abdol-Vahab Shahidi, and was ready to work with young Jamal, who was now only 16 – an unheard of age to be assigned as an understudy of a musical master like Ostad Mehrtash. In fact, Vafaei’s father also had a history with Ostad Mehrtash, as he had worked in the Ostad’s theater years prior. Vafaei spent the next 12 years under the tutelage of Ostad Mehrtash, visiting him twice a week for learning the radif and again once a week for singing practice. There were 4 students studying under Mehrtash all together at this time – Jamal Vafaei, Mohammad Montasheri, Mr. Safarian, and a very young Mohammad Reza Shajarian. Vafaei flourished under Mehrtash’s instruction during this time period and he grew from a teenage prodigy to having a deep and complete knowledge of the radif and a polished and mature voice with nearly unprecedented beauty and precision that made him ready for the national stage.
In 1967, under the encouragement of the Shah’s wife, Empress Farah, the Shiraz Jashne Honar festival was launched. This program ran until 1977 and became the center stage for a global artistic showcase every year. Only a select handful of the most promising and accomplished Persian classical musicians were invited to participate.
By 1968, the second annual Shiraz Jashne Honar festival was being planned. A new voice of Persian Classical Music was sought after. One that was largely undiscovered and could be representative of the next generation of Persian classical music singers. A selection committee was put together and was comprised of some of the biggest names Persian Classical Music has ever seen: Golha Program founder Davood Pirnia, Dr. Bargashty, master tar player Jalil Shahnaz, master violinist Ali Tajvidi, master kamancheh player Asghar Bahari, and master santoor player Faramarz Payvar – all legends in their fields.
Various auditions were held around July 1968 and one was held at Ostad Mehrtash’s class. All 4 singers in his class auditioned, including Shajarian. With the audition over, they all were leaving, but the committee asked Vafaei to stay. With tears streaming down his face, the committee head told Vafaei “I’m glad your 12 years of training under Ostad Mehrtash has come to fruition. We have selected you to sing at the next Jashne Honar in Shiraz.” His comments were met in return with tears streaming down Vafaei’s face. An entire lifetime of training was about to reach the highest level of visibility for Vafaei, singing at the 1968 Jashne Honar in Shiraz.
Within 24 hours of his selection, he was asked to go sing for the national radio, and he was both thrilled yet unsure how to respond. The selection committee said though the national radio was a high visibility stage that all Persian classical musicians aspired for, and that he should focus first on the Jashne Honar, and so that is exactly what he did. He was now to start practicing twice a week for two months with his musical counterparts, who would be with him up on stage: Master tonbak player Hossein Tehrani, Master Santoor player Faramarz Payvar, Master kamancheh player Asghar Bahari, and Master violinist Rahmattollah Badiei. Also singing at this Jashne Honar was Abdol Vahab Shahidi, another graduate of Ostad Esmail Mehrtash, making the master instructor proud of the fruits of his labor at this 1968 event.
The night of Jashne Honar finally came. There would first be a formal artistic and musical event in Tehran for all the musicians to meet one another and do their official performances before going to Shiraz for Jashne Honar and once again repeating their performances with the other international musicians and artists. This initial event in Iran was considered equally important, and the Empress Farah herself would attend in person. Unfortunately, Vafaei was given incorrect instructions on the location of this first event in Tehran by individuals whose dubious motivation later came under question, and his fellow musicians – impatiently waiting for him at the correct location for the event - were overcome by concern. The Empress Farah was in the front row, all the instrumental musicians were there, but not the singer. Vafaei was in the wrong part of town, thinking the festival was perhaps on another day and he was mistaken. By sheer chance, he ran into a lady in the middle of this empty lot, and she happened to be on her way to the festival. She hurredly advised him that the festival was at Tehran University and not at Maidoon Jaleh where he was told to go. Vafaei was in tears, but she reassured him that they could make it, and she rushed him to the festival, where his musical counterparts and Master Mehrtash were both overcome with frustration and relief. Life is all about timing, and had Vafaei not met this strange lady in that vacant location by chance at that exact moment, it is possible that the entire course of his musical career may have been different, as he may never have had the same chance again.
The event started late due to his late arrival and planned practices that afternoon didn’t happen, but Vafaei sang flawlessly, singing Hafez verses in Afshari. He sang the same at the Jashne Honar in Shiraz the next day. The song was so beautiful that Davood Pirnia wanted it released in his Golha program. This exact song was then re-recorded and later released in the GolhaProgram, as Yek Shakeh Gol 386, with Lotfallah Majd playing tar,Parviz Yahaghi playing violin, and Bahman Rajavi playing zarb.
The day after this Jashne Honar, there were multiple articles written in the Keyhan newspaper by esteemed classical musicians of the day, critiquing the Iranian musicians from the Jashne Honar event. All the reviews of Vafaei were very positive, and in particular, Ostad Ghavami wrote a full page review with very positive feedback and observations on Vafaei’s unique and beautiful voice. Vafaei was referenced as Ostad Mehrtash’s pupil throughout, making the aging master very proud as well.
Vafaei’s songs were now being played on the radio and on television and he was receiving checks for his music. He now had outstanding invitations to participate in the Golha Program and in the Farhang Honar artistic series on television, with invitation from Faramarz Payvar. Ostad Mehrtash advised him to go into the Radio Golha program, as this had greater prestige and potential. Upon Vafaei’s arrival at the Iranian Radio head office, Mr. Farrohkhnia - a key program executive was excited to see him, having waited in for four days in anticipation of his arrival. Mr. Farrokhnia told him “do you know what an incredible piece of music you’ve produced, Vafaei?” Mr. Farrokhnia then played a tape recorder of Ostad Vafaei singing and shook his head in disbelief at the beauty of this young man’s voice. Mr. Farrokhnia then worked with Ostad Vafaei to have a sample song produced for Mr. Davood Pirnia, the leader of the Radio Golha program. When Mr. Pirnia heard the song, he expressed his approval and said it was good enough to be broadcast on the radio. Ostad Vafaei was issued a check for 1,000 toman and was welcomed to the Radio Golha program starting the following month, at a salary of 1,260 toman a month to start, and working with the esteemed program founder, Mr. Davood Pirnia. This was the beginning of something great, and Jamal Vafaei’s lifetime of dedication and commitment to his skills had come to fruition, as he was now an Ostad of Persian Classical Music.
Soon Ostad Vafaei was introduced to the violinist and composer Mehdi Khaledi and began collaborations with him. They practiced together at their first meeting and Khaledi announced that he had composed a song that he wanted Ostad Vafei to sing on the radio on the day of Eid-e-Ghorban (feast of sacrifice) – the type of recognition that all classical Persian singers wished to have! The song was recorded and released as planned and was a sensation. From there, two more Golha recordings were scheduled, one of which was for the Yek Shakheh Gol 386 originally played at the 1968 Jashne Honar in Shiraz just recently. From there, famous poet Rahii Moayeri wanted to meet with Ostad Vafaei so that he could start writing poetry for Mehdi Khaledi to compose and Ostad Vafaei to sing. When Mr. Moayeri met Vafaie, he told Mehdi Khaledi in amazement “this singer is extremely young!”, to which Mehdi Khaledi said “yes, but listen to his voice!”. Moayeri was struck by the beauty of his voice and agreed to work with this young musical prodigy, and he advised Mehdi Khaledi to be the personal composer of Ostad Vafaei’s songs – which he was, for a period of three or four years. Khaledi would give one song per month to Ostad Vafaei, another to Sima Bina, and yet another to Ahdieh. In the recording studios, Vafaei would sing once, and the composition would always be perfect the first time; he became well known for never needing to be asked to re-record songs for quality reasons. In short order, Ostad Vafaei was a very recognized Persian Classical Musician.
However, Ostad Vafaei was not just a classical musician. He was at heart an entertainer, a dancer, a singer, a comedian, an actor, and much more. He started to sing at weddings, cabarets, and many other such social gatherings. He started to sing pop music and entered a new genre of music. Eventually he had his biggest pop hit, “Nayer”, which catapulted his career in pop, and turned out to be very lucrative for him. Although Davood Pirnia and Hooshang Ebtehaj, who later took his place as the overall director of the Golha program, both preferred that Ostad Vafaei focus exclusively on Persian classical music, Ostad Mehrtash told him “go after the pop music too! Musicians should be wealthy.” Ostad Vafaei took Ostad Mehrtash’s advice. Not only did he continue to go after pop music, he also played in four different films, showcasing his artistic talents. In fact, in the 1970’s, a famous Indian film with Indian actor and producer Raj Kapoor was reproduced as an Iranian film by Siamak Yasamin under the name “Rande Shod”. In this film, Ostad Vafaei played the role of Raj Kapoor and sang all the songs in the film. This film is very famous and is one that most Iranians of the time have seen multiple times. The entire film can be viewed at this Rande Shod
After a period of time, Ostad Vafaei was asked to exclusively sing for the Golha Program and not for any other social events. The primary concern was that singing every night would cause his voice to be hoarse and would therefore impact the quality of his voice when singing Persian classical music for the Golha program. Discontinuing or even curtailing such activities would not only present a financial constraint, but also a personal and social constraint – Ostad Vafaei loved to make people dance, laugh, and have a good time, and he liked to do it every day – many times a day. His normal schedule was to sing at 3 or 4 different events every single night. Ostad Vafaei was asked to choose between these daily events and the Golha program. He went with his heart and chose singing at weddings, cabarets, and social gatherings. His time with the Golha Program had largely come to a close. It was not without accomplishment though. Ostad Vafaei had sung 8 songs for the Yek Shakhe Gol series, 10 songs for the Barg Sabz series, and 14 songs for the Golhaye Rangarang series. This is in addition to a multitude of melodies (“taranehs”) that he sang on a monthly basis for the radio, outside of the Golha program – totaling hundreds of songs in total across the four radio orchestras at the time Looking back, Ostad Vafaei says “this period of my life was golden. It is most notable that I was able to establish myself as a singer of Persian classical music at a time when all the biggest masters were also singing – Golpayegani, Iraj, Ghavami, Shahidi, Khansari, Shajarian, Banan, and others.”
Ostad Hosein Samadi was a critical song writer for Ostad Vafaei during the ensuing period when he sang pop music, including Ostad Vafaei’s most famous song, Nayer, as well as songs such as Tooti, Setareye Soheil, Zendegi, and many others. Other song writers that supported Ostad Vafaei included Ostad Mala’a, Mr. Feredoon Hafezi, Mr. Ebrahim Massoudi, Mr. Meftah, Mr. Abdullah Jahanpanah, the entire Lashkari musical family (Agha Bozorg, Manoochehr, Hasar, etc), Mr. Manoochehr Goodarzi, Abbas Zardi, and Ebrahim Sarkhosh. Also of note is the poet Bijan Taraghi, who wrote the poem called Mojgan for one of Ostad Vafaei’s songs. The musicians who would play with him in these songs include the biggest Ostads in Persian classical music: Farhang Sharif, Habibollah Badiei, Assadollah Malek, Jalil Shahnaz, Faramarz Payvar, and Mohammad Esmaili. Some of the others he worked with over the years that are worthy of mention are Mehdi Takistani, Ebrahim Sarmaky, Mr. Alborzi – with whom he worked with for 20 years, and Amir Naser Eftetah.
Golha program leader Houshang Ebtehaj after some period of time wanted to have Ostad Vafaie come back – telling Ostad Vafaei that he wanted to have “two Shajarians”, and that he wanted to pay him 20,000 tomans a month - the same as Ostad Shajarian. However, while Ostad Vafaei wanted to participate in the Golha program again, he wanted to do so while also pursuing his other musical engagements, and while Ebtehaj would allow for this, he wanted Ostad Vafaei to do so infrequently, for the purpose of preserving his voice. But singing at such events only infrequently was not something that Ostad Vafaei could do. It was again determined that the two musical professions could not happen at the same time, and although Ebtehaj left the door open for Ostad Vafaei to return at any time he was ready, Ostad Vafaei’s historic legacy with the Golha Program was finally finished.
Around this time, there were advertisements across the country communicating an international musical festival in Vietnam, for which Iran could send one male and one female singer to represent the face of Persian classical music. Many of the most well known singers of the day applied, but Ostad Vafaei – despite not having applied himself - was handpicked by the Shah of Iran to represent the country at this important event, where he met such stars as Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra. He was chosen not only for his singing skills, but also for his entertainment skills. He took with him six other musicians, including Mr. Alborzi, Mr. Mehdi Takistani, Mr. Abbas Zandi, and Mr. Hassan Shamaizadeh. This event was one of the biggest honors of his musical career.
Shortly thereafter, the revolution started and Ostad Vafaei experienced the same terrible circumstances that other singers fell victim to during this time. He left for the United States in the 1980’s, and aside from a 3 year stay in Germany, has been there ever since. He lives today in San Francisco, California with his wife of many years, Mitra.
Ostad Vafaei’s most important instructor was Esmail Mehrtash, but he also studied to a lesser extent under Mr. Boozari and Noor Ali Boroumand. For a three year period, he would meet with Ostad Banan once a week and work on musical programs, during which he also learned from Ostad Banan’s insight and experience. Through his friendship with Ostad Ghavami, he was able to meet with Ostad Adib Khasari, from which he learned how to sing in Bayat Esfahan and Bayat Darvish Hassan. His favorite singers are Akbar Golpayegani and Iraj. He had in fact spent 3 – 4 years with Ostad Golpayegani singing at his cabaret, on a daily basis. His favorite santoor player is Reza Varzandeh. His favorite tar players are Farhang Sharif and Lotfollah Majd – noting that Majd was very particular about who he would work with, and Ostad Vafaei was among those very few singers with whom he enjoyed working with. His favorite old time singer is Adib Khansari. His favorite setar player was Ahmad Ebadi, and after that, Jalal Zolfonoun. His closest musical friends were Habibollah Badiei and Parviz Yahaghi.
He has a rich memory and enjoys telling stories and takes deep pleasure in reminiscing about his experiences during his singing career. When listening to his own music, he closes his eyes and remembers those wonderful days, and explains the intricacies of every aspect of how he is singing in that song – the radif, the poetry, switching from one radif to another seamlessly, how low tones should be sung, how high tones should be sung, how the other musicians in the song would duplicate their response to his singing passages, and much more. Every song takes him to a different time and place, and if you listen to him carefully, you will feel as though you are right there with him. His message to his fans: “I have always had the best relationship with the people with whom I’ve worked, and they have left me with very wonderful memories. I have no regrets or bad thoughts, and I am thankful to everyone who has been a part of my personal and professional life, and I love them all.”