A Tale of Two Muezzins – An Irishman’s Diary about cultural calls to prayer

Karl Jenkins: one critic has described him as classical music’s “Marmite Man”

Karl Jenkins: one critic has described him as classical music’s “Marmite Man”

 

For several weeks recently, my Dublin neighbourhood was mystified (or at least I was mystified on its behalf) by a daily broadcast of the Muslim call to prayer.

Every lunchtime, half an hour after the Angelus, it would come floating across the rooftops, from an origin unknown.

First I suspected a nearby apartment block and wondered if it was the work of a freelance muezzin, hoping to convert the local infidels.  

Then I narrowed it down to our stately neighbour, the 330-year-old Royal Hospital Kilmainham.

Sure enough, closer inspection revealed that the chant emanated from the RHK’s old bell-tower, which had been seemingly transformed into a minaret. But further investigation revealed it wasn’t so much a call to prayer, as a call to culture – via an exhibition in the former military hospital’s latter-day role, as Irish Museum of Modern Art.

The woman responsible is Emily Jacir, who was born in Bethlehem (of all places), but grew up in Saudi Arabia, and whose latest show, Europa, was inspired by the continent where – mainly in Italy – she has spent much of her working life.

For the Dublin leg of its tour, she adapted the work to juxtapose the colonial pasts of Palestine and Ireland, in a venue that used to be where the wounded sons of the British Empire came to set. Thus the daily call to prayer which, like the exhibition continues until February 26th, rings out not just over rooftops, but over the graves of many an imperial war veteran.

Among the ghosts it may be disturbing is that of at least one four-legged soldier, Vonolel, the mount of Lord Roberts, Kipling’s favourite general.  

Mind you, the horse probably heard a few muezzins in his time. He was an Arab charger, bought in old East India. And he earned his several medals for conspicuous service during the Afghan Wars.

I was reminded of the RHK muezzin by news of an event in the National Concert Hall this weekend, which also involves a Muslim call to prayer.  

Paranoid Christians can relax, because this one too is in the cause of art. Moreover, the muezzin is only one of several religious elements incorporated into a work, the subtitle of which is A Mass for Peace.

The Armed Man (its main title) is the work of Welsh composer Karl Jenkins, who in a former life was part of 1970s prog-rock band The Soft Machine. From the same era and genre, he was also among the performers of a celebrated live TV performance of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. But by the 1990s, he had progressed to becoming a classical composer, and a very popular one too.

Commissioned by London’s Royal Armouries museum, to mark a millennial move to Leeds, The Armed Man (2000) was a 21st-century version of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Like the latter, it too was based on the Catholic Mass, but drew on many other sources, from medieval French folk song to the aforementioned Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling’s pre-1914 manifestation might have been surprised to feature in a musical condemnation of war. But like Britten’s Requiem, that’s what The Armed Man is. It was dedicated to victims of then-recent Kosovo crisis. And it’s a sad irony that the subsequent studio recording was realised on September 10th , 2001, the day before an event that has spawned several more wars since.

Whatever its contribution to world peace, The Armed Man has been a huge commercial success. That may or may not be a factor in Jenkins’s reputation as what one critic has called classical music’s “Marmite Man”.  

Marmite, in case you’ve never had the pleasure, is said to divide opinion along love/hate lines. And if some purists do indeed hate him, there’s a suspicion that this is partly because of his record sales, which are considered indecently large for the classical genre.

In any case, there are many more people who love than hate him, judging by a 2016 poll of listeners to the UK’s Classic FM, which declared him “greatest living composer”. In similar vein, among their all-time favourite pieces, The Armed Man was ranked highest (at No 15) for a composer still breathing.

Irish listeners can judge for themselves tomorrow night when the anti-war work is presented by massed ranks of musicians in the NCH. The stage will include both a western front – the Ballina Chamber Choir and Cór Mhaigh Eo – and an eastern one, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and Dún Laoghaire Choral Society. Conductor/General David Brophy will give the orders. More details at NCH.ie