‘Bollywood with Brass’

By skepticlawyer

Yes, it’s a music post and… not about Metallica. 

Since I’ve been at Oxford, I’ve discovered large numbers of people who study extremely interesting things. This goes without saying. As you’d expect, there’s lots of putative cures for cancer, philosophies of law, population genetics and so on to be found among the Oxford graduate community. All good, all interesting yadda yadda.

I think, however, that I’ve found the group that wins my personal ‘interesting prize’. It goes (drumroll) to the musicologists. Musicologists (among other things) try to work out what ancient music used to sound like. They ask questions like: ‘when Bach wrote that Toccata, what did instruments did he write it for, and how did he expect it would sound?’ Fabulous musicians to a man and woman on (usually) half a dozen instruments, they are the kind of people who can explain the origin of that riff, that beat, that style. And then pinch your guitar off you and demonstrate half a dozen different versions. Remarkable, it really is.

This week, I had cause to ask one of them what ancient Roman music sounded like. His response? ‘Bollywood with brass’. Apart from making me laugh very hard, his (later, very detailed) explanation really got me thinking about how we conceive of ‘good sound’ and how this can change over time. Apparently the big deal with ancient music (like Carnatic Indian music) is that it was modal, not tonal. This means a whole lot of stuff — musically, mathematically and socially, much of which I don’t understand — but is also the main reason why a first experience with Indian music can produce a wincing sensation that everything is off-key. When they first encounter our music, I’m told Indians react in the same way. 

For a long time, we had no idea how music in antiquity sounded, but musicologists (in the company of linguists and population geneticists) have been busily pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. Little details can be very telling in this exercise. Classical Latin is as close to Sanskrit as it is to Greek, for example (ok, I knew about ‘Indo-European’ languages, but this detail was new; humour me).

Anyway, I took my Latin A-Level off to have a think after that little musicology chat; this included rereading the Roman historian Livy’s famous description of the reception of Cybele, the Magna Mater, into Rome’s pantheon during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC). This has always been (for me, anyway) one of the most evocative and striking accounts of a pagan rite in all literature, but was something I could never properly visualise.

Try to imagine, if you can, a ritual involving every woman with kids in a large urban metropolis; the elaborately staged transport of a votive image (a glossy meteorite, apparently) up the river Tiber in the company of a senior politician and lawyer who is scared spitless because his country is tangled up in a war that it seems destined to lose; the public performance (through dance) of a complex religious narrative. The politician and Roman mothers doing the supervising have been told that the ritual will save their city. They have spent most of the last seven years living in sheer terror as Hannibal has destroyed them in battle after battle (some of the costliest defeats documented in military history). The whole thing culminates in a rite where one of Cybele’s priests drugs himself, enters a trance state (as do his followers) and then cuts his own balls off with a set of shears. Livy (and other historians) tell us that Cybele’s priestesses led the people in orgiastic ceremonies with wild music, drumming, dancing, and drinking. Her priest’s actions recalled the story of Attis, who was castrated, died of his wounds, and later resurrected by his mother. The Romans liked resurrection stories.

Now Livy is a surpassingly good writer, and Cybele’s Festival was one of Rome’s largest annual piss-ups (April 12 was her gazetted public holiday; it was forever tied in the Roman mind to memorializing the eventual victory over Carthage), so it’s a fair bet that what he wrote about it was accurate pretty much to the last detail. And the Romans loved Cybele; she was theirs in a very special way.

And yet, I could never get a visual handle on just what was going on there, apart from the fact that it was, well, weird. Okay, our religions would probably look pretty weird to them, too, although I do think the Romans would have grasped the grandeur of the Islamic Hajj. Of course, they’d also recognise Christianity’s death and resurrection story. What was always missing for me was a soundtrack. Religion needs music like human beings need air, friends and neighbours. Especially a mass ritual like that.

Well, my Roman Empire is now scored by A R Rahman and friends, and everything f*cking makes sense at last. No-one does massed song and dance like Bollywood: hypnotic and grand and joyous all at once. I wish my old Latin teacher were still alive (he died last year) so I could tell him.

All of which gives me an excuse to post this:
Jai Ho 


  1. Posted April 4, 2009 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    Finding out that Roman music was basically Bollywood was an utter revelation to me — there are about four billion things (okay that’s a slight bit of hype there, but as Indian cinema shows, hype can be fun) that now make sense to me that didn’t before, especially about Roman religion (and entertainment generally).

    Even the conventions of the Roman theatre tie into it — eg no tragedy — this was considered a Greek affectation, lots of big brassy song & dance numbers, a characteristically high pitched female vocal — which people elsewhere in the Empire found unlistenable (eg Jews, who also have tonal, not modal music) — and always happy endings (with the whole cast doing a big song & dance routine), playback singers (some actors could dance but not sing, so they would lip-sync while a playback singer hid somewhere in the stage machinery doing the actual singing).


  2. Posted April 5, 2009 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    The ancient people who left the best record of their music were probably the Greeks, since they actually developed a form of musical notation. Recreations of ancient or medieval musics is often a highly notional exercise – guessing what the music would have been like from the words that were sung to it, making deductions from the music that is still performed now, etc….anyway, some Ancient Greek music:


  3. Posted April 5, 2009 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    That’s a beautiful instrument, Tim… and you’ve clearly been talking to musicologists too 🙂

  4. Posted April 5, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Fab post, ’nuff said.

  5. Posted April 5, 2009 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Cheers Adrien.

    LE, quite a bit of that goes through cheese and comes out the other side. Very, very funny, in a ‘there’s no such thing as a bad giant earthworm movie’ kind of way.

    But all very, very listenable, and infectiously happy and ‘up’, too.

  6. Posey
    Posted April 5, 2009 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    But did Nero actually write or improvise his own music or perform others’ compositions on his lyre?

  7. Posted April 5, 2009 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Posey: chuckle.

  8. Posted April 5, 2009 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Did music at uni… including some units in ‘early’ music. I had a brief, and tantalising encounter with the study of ancient music. If anything that lyre performance might give the wrong idea… as any tragedy or comedy would indicate, the Greeks were also given to loud, rude, in-your-face artistic performances, though maybe it wasn’t in quite so public a way as the Romans (hence the jokes in Aristophanes plays about women’s secret ceremonies… hmmm, not much has changed from 500 AD in Greece to the present day in Australia!)

    It’s fascinating to think that the Romans and the Indians may have derived a common musical heritage from a common Indo-European culture, though of course all comparisons can be dangerous… Indian music as we know it is seen through the perspective of thousands of years of theory and practice that would make it in some ways quite distinct from its Roman cousin.

    And of course there’s no reason to suppose that that lyre music is itself authentic, just a near-enough imitation, an interesting museum piece.

    A lot of ‘early musicians’ like to jazz up the remaining musical fragments with added harmonies, instrumentation, dance-like interpretations, etc. I went to a recent performance of medieval music that was mostly fairly austere, consisting of authentic instrumentation, songs in the original language, translations and explanations in the program – and ended with a performance of ‘Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man’ from My Fair Lady.’ It depends to a certain extent on whether the performers think medieval music should be ‘authentic’, or ‘reinterpreted’ for a modern audience, and on whether they think the audience should be ‘entertained’ or ‘edified’. (And, of course, whether the audience agrees with them.)

    Er, sorry, that comment went on quite long. It’s an interesting subject.

  9. Posted April 5, 2009 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    It’ll be interesting to see what the musicologists make of Metallica in 2000 years time!

  10. Posted April 5, 2009 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Tim, don’t apologise — it’s all fascinating, end of. The reason the Bollywood analogy ‘clicks’ for me is that I know the Romans needed something to carry what really was a truly ‘mass’ culture — and not just in its religious ceremonies.

    There’s a mountain of historical evidence around that music was pervasive in ancient Rome, and there are certain things in Roman literature (where I’m reasonably well read in the original language) — like their musical theatre conventions — where the analogy holds very strongly.

    And, by the way, Missy Higgins probably is a lipsniger (nerdy inter-blog joke…)

  11. Posted April 6, 2009 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    I love Bhangra because I’m a total beat-head (there is no such thing as too much percussion!) but I hate Bollywood with a passion. And yes, to me those female vocals sound like someone gutting a cat – give me Montserrat any day.

    Used to drum in a Samba band when I lived in Wales and given the prevalence of Candomble in Brazil I wonder if pagan roman music would have ended up closer to Samba/Voodoo music than Bollywood.

  12. Posted April 6, 2009 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    In European society, those gods just got swallowed up by the saints (my favourite goddess-into-saint is Saint Bridget, who turned some Irish monks’ bath water into beer).

    So THAT explains Guinness…

  13. Posey
    Posted April 6, 2009 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    There’s a fabulous description of Nero’s song and instrumental performances by Michael Grant who speculates that the music was “predominantly melodic, without any counterpoint or harmony as we know it, and lacking our highest and deepest notes….it might sound like some mixture of Gregorian chant and the musical traditions of the Arab, Indians or Chinese.”

  14. Posted April 6, 2009 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    Both Philo and Josephus (Hellenized/Romanized Jews) have a good old whinge about the high female vocal in Roman music (musical theatre in this case).

    Josephus in particular got carted off to the theatre/games/baths/etc by his Roman mates, was seduced by a Roman woman (which led to him divorcing his Jewish first wife) and was generally thoroughly corrupted by what would have been a very different culture from that he’d experienced growing up in first century AD Judaea… but like DEM, he still thought the Roman high female vocal sounded like a cat having its tail pulled 😉

    According to a couple of my musicologist mates, the idea that they didn’t have harmony in antiquity is a bit of a myth. I have had this explained to me repeatedly… but I’ve had so much music theory in the last week it’s now all draining out the back of my head.

  15. John Greenfield
    Posted April 7, 2009 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Living in England among the modern world’s best soccer hooligans, you probably have little trouble understanding Procopius’ account of the Nika Riots! 🙂

  16. Posted April 7, 2009 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Ahh yes, JG — sport and politics have clearly been mixing for thousands of years…

    [Potted summary of Nika riots here. And you thought Collingwood supporters were insane. Then there’s the f*cking great riot in the Pompeiian amphitheatre over Nocerian gladiators cleaning up the locals…]

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