Robert Farris Thompson: Canons of the Cool

The Yale professor was destined to become another stuffy intellectual — until he danced the mambo

Slums in Port-au-Prince Credit: THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images

A bottle of Cinzano, a can of hairspray, a menorah, a machete and a broken jukebox are devotional objects adorning the altar of a vodun ("voodoo") temple on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. The temple is situated in the compound of André Pierre, vodun priest and painter, alongside a ditch on the road to Cap-Haïtien. There are wrecked cars in the courtyard, dogs, goats and a small tethered bull. Arriving from Francois Duvalier International Airport, in a frame of mind predisposed toward omens, I cannot help noticing a large nearby traffic sign that reads, LA ROUTE TUE ET BLESSE ("The Road Kills and Wounds").

Robert Farris Thompson and I have come down to Haiti on a 10:30 a.m. flight from New York to pass the weekend with André Pierre and with Madame Nerva, a vodun priestess. Thompson is an art historian, a tenured professor at Yale and master of Timothy Dwight College there. I am a former student of his, come along to watch Bob make what he calls "a little sounding" — "a little sondage." André Pierre is the Haitian Fra Angelico, a vodun cleric whose canvases hang in the Haitian national museum; copies of his work fill airport postcard racks. André Pierre's wife, children and cousins' children stir from their shaded mats as Thompson rolls into the compound in his green rented car, calling out, "Bam nouvelle" and "Comment u-ye?"

Tiny, bleary and black, André Pierre summons us out of the heat into his studio. The walls are covered with bright vodun altarpieces — diptychs and triptychs of Ogûn, god of iron; Agoué, lord of the sea; Erzuli, goddess of love; and Damballah, serpent-god of creativity, fecundity and rain. Next to the easel hangs a tasseled military uniform for Baron Samedi, lord of the graveyard, pressed neatly in its dry-cleaning bag.

With the reverent, custodial manner of an abbot showing visitors around a venerable monastery in southern France, André Pierre takes us on a tour of the corrugated-tin temple. He shows us through altar rooms containing drums, basins, scythes, playing cards, liquor, whips and beds (in which André Pierre sleeps when he spends the night with a particular deity). He talks a Creole stream of vodun theology as he points and walks. Suddenly, André Pierre breaks into a song to illustrate a particular idea; it matches a painting he's explaining, the way a requiem matches a crucifixion. Thompson grabs a drum and begins to drum and sing along. When they finish, as a celebratory gesture, they each pour a dollop of root liquor onto the ground. Thompson, sketching every detail of the altar, alerts me in an English aside to be careful near the stone basins in the dark room, because those dedicated to Damballah, the serpent god, sometimes contain snakes.

By nightfall, Thompson has sweated through his polo shirt, filled a notebook and a half with sketches and jottings, begun a monograph on the iconography of 10 vodun paintings, drummed, drunk and made an appointment to return early the next day. As we set off to find our hotel, Thompson, excited, explains the moral subtleties of everything we've seen. He tells me our schedule: we're due the next evening in Jacmel, across the mountains, to watch Madame Nerva celebrate the rites of the love goddess, Erzuli. I am exhausted, having found the trip from Manhattan to the temple of André Pierre in one afternoon to be too much. Thompson, though, seems to feel no strain in the day's movements; he enters Haiti quite fluidly. In fact, he only seems to be coming into his own.

White of skin, white of hair and white of origins, education and society, Robert Farris Thompson fell in love with black music, black art and blackness 30 years ago and has spent his entire career in the grips of that particular passion. Following an instinct aroused by a mambo overheard in 1950, Thompson has learned fluent Ki-Kongo, Yoruba, French, Spanish and Portuguese and is learning a score of Creole and tribal languages; wandered, with pygmies, Zaire's Ituri forest; become a vodun acolyte; written four books on West African religion, philosophy and art; and organized two major exhibitions at Washington's National Gallery. He has also become, by dancing in an indigo costume embroidered with seashells taken from the gizzards of dead crocodiles, a "junior-varsity member of the Basinjon Society," a Cameroun tribal agency for controlling lightning and other natural forces.

Incorporating anthropology, sociology, ethnomusicology and what Thompson calls "guerrilla scholarship" (i.e., "We'll let the fud-duds footnote their way across that"), Thompson's career is bent toward a single end: the learned advocacy of black Atlantic civilization. He spends his life pursuing the scholarly thrill of making coherent and meaningful what is misunderstood as random, superficial or obscure. As an art historian will extract from basilica floor plans a comprehension of the medieval mind, or from late Roman statuary an understanding of the empire's decline, Thompson works from the iconography of salsa, dance steps, clothes, sculpture, gesture and slang to a definition of blackness. He loves to show how sophisticated the "primitive" really is. As archeologist, he brings artifacts to life; as critic, he deciphers them; and as true believer, he promotes their artistic and spiritual worth.

Thompson's newest book, Flash of the Spirit, explains the roots of African influence in the New World. It serves as a sort of Baedeker to funk. One reviewer wrote, "This book does for art history what the dunk shot did for basketball."

Beneath the right sleeve of his Brooks Brothers shirt, Bob Thompson wears the iron-mesh initiation bracelet of the Yoruba river-hunter deity. With his two kids and his recent divorce, his Yale and Andover education and his 55 years, he resembles an exultant corporate lawyer or some bright, self-possessed American oil executive who has spent a polyglot career abroad. He lives, in New Haven, in the college master's Georgian mansion, where one can hear the sound of drumming percussing across the pilastered courtyard.

Around Yale, from class to gym to dining hall to lecture, through street-corner encounters and buttonholing conversations, Thompson proselytizes his way. At Mory's, the eating club, Thompson once greeted Yale's patrician former president with the black-power salute (and had it reciprocated by the wry and genial Kingman Brewster good-naturedly trying to get his thumb correctly placed around Thompson's hand).

Thompson teaches 100 to 150 students a term. He possesses the amused enthusiasm of the undergraduates. The rest of the university knows Thompson as "Mambo." If glib enough, they'll make the remark "black like Bob." What counts is that Yale president Bart Giamatti, a bright maverick himself, admires Thompson's intrepid singularity enough to have just reappointed him to another five years as master.

On the campus, the Chubb Fellowship posters best express Thompson's status as a big-time anomaly. The Chubb Fellowship is an endowed program for bringing political visitors to campus, and it is as stuffy as endowed fellowships can be. During Thompson's tenure, the usual group — Walter Mondale, Alexander Haig, John Kenneth Galbraith — have been guest lecturers. Posters commemorating their visits line the walls of the master's house like trophies of the lecture circuit's big game. One poster, larger and bolder than the others, hangs in Thompson's study. It announces that the Chubb Fellowship is sponsoring, for a colloquium and reception at Timothy Dwight College, a visit by His Highness the Granman of the Djuka, from Surinam, "a real Afro-American king."

Bob Thompson lectures his class like a fundamentalist preacher rousing a congregation, knees bent, microphone cocked and wire trailing behind him. He walks amid the 200 students overflowing the Street Hall auditorium out into the corridor. Thompson's fall course, HoA 379a, is titled "The Structure of the New York Mambo: Microcosm of Black Creativity." Onstage a tape player emits pygmy yodeling; from the vacant lectern hangs a map of West African tribal dominions; and on the screen flash slides of Harlem, pygmies, fabrics of syncopated patterns and Kongo-influenced funerary sculpture from North Carolina graveyards. "Why," Thompson asks, "are black people so sassy?"

The answer begins with the etymology of the phrase "get down." It moves to the Yoruba concepts of cool (itutu) and command (àshe); lateral versus sagittal walking; the aesthetics of drumming; the significance of offbeat phrasing; call-and-response; and finally Muhammad Ali. Thompson's voice switches to a mock-Groton lilt to declaim a litany of African influences:

"A lot of our slang was created by people thinking in Yoruba and Ki-Kongo while speaking in English. The basic sounds of agreement and disagreement, uh-huh and unh-unh, are pure West African. Funky is Ki-Kongo lu-fuki, 'positive sweat.' Boogie comes from Ki-Kongo mbugi, meaning 'devilishly good.' Jazz and jisn probably derive from the same Ki-Kongo root dinza, meaning 'to ejaculate.' Mojo comes from Ki-Kongo for 'soul'; juke as in jukebox from Mande-kan for 'bad'; and Babalu-Aye — as in disc jockey Babalu — is pure and simple Yoruba for 'Father and Master of the Universe.'

"Most of our ballroom dancing is Africanized," he continues, "the rhumba, the tango, even tap-dancing and the Lindy. Fried chicken is African. And J. Press patchwork shorts may be related to an African fabric. Even cheerleading incorporates some apparent Kongo gestures: left hand on hip, right hand raised twirling a baton. It worked its way up through New Orleans Vodun Rara bands into the Dallas Cowboys' half-time show."

"Let me give you all the pieces that ignited," Thompson explains, sitting in a campus restaurant. "I grew up in Texas; I was crazy about boogie. I wasn't a football player or anything, and I realize now that any elements of attractiveness I had for girls then were both musical and black-influenced. My senior year at prep school, I went to Mexico City on a trip. There was this mambo — Mexico City was awash in mambo — I heard waiters humming it, I heard it on the lips of gas-station attendants, I heard it in the background when talking to the hotel operator on the phone. It was my first full shot of African music: all-out black polyphony, mambo multimetrics. A stunning woman stopped in front of me in a cafe; she heard this music, and I heard her say to her companion, 'But darling, it's such a different beat.'"

A mambo called "The Newspaper Shirt Mambo" — La Camisa de Papel — by Justi Barretto, is the principal icon of Thompson's career. A broken shard of the Mexican 78-rpm record as sung by Perez Prado hangs framed in his study. "Specifically, it's about a black who wears a shirt literally made of scare headlines — a shirt of newspaper. The song had no fear of strong subject matter — it was about the beginning of the Korean War and about the fear of thermonuclear war. One line goes, 'Hey, black man, got the news?' I was irradiated with this music, hopelessly hooked on mambo."

In 1954, Thompson spent the Thanksgiving vacation of his senior year at Yale holed up in the Carlton House hotel in New York trying to begin a book. He called it Notes toward a Definition of Mambo. "My father was a surgeon, and he and my mother were a little confused by what I was doing: 'My son the mambologist?' All the while I was trying to explain this passion to myself"

"Music called," Thompson says, "and art history was the response." He decided to become a graduate student at Yale. "The more I studied, the more I saw how the world had covered up the source of all this. It wasn't Latin music — it was Kongo-Cuban-Brazilian music. You can hear Kongo rhythms in 'The Newspaper Shirt.' And mambu in Ki-Kongo means 'issues, important matters, text.' A mambo is a seminar on the crisscross of currents from Africa.

"These are some of the strands in the textile: salsa and reggae share the mambo impulse, and the mambo component in turn emerged from Cuba in the late 1930s. Yoruba is still spoken there. If you were Yoruba, and taken in slavery in the nineteenth century, chances were you'd wind up in Cuba or northeastern Brazil. Afro-Cuban culture survived slavery. Those Afro-Cuban rhythms are hot, acrid and bumping. I have spent my life like a literary critic," he says, "trying to marshal all the apposite texts to decode 'The Newspaper Shirt Mambo.'"

The next important step in Thompson's development was a Ford Foundation fellowship to go to Yorubaland (Nigeria) for fieldwork; he has gone back and forth between Yale and Africa 14 times. Thompson inhabits both worlds. For example, he tells how a high priest of the Yoruba religion in New York drove up to visit him in New Haven. The Yoruba priest's car broke down. Thompson relates that the priest opened the hood, then borrowed some rum from Thompson to make a rum mist that he blew out of his mouth over the overheated engine (it's a Yoruba gesture for cooling things down). Then the priest took out his American Automobile Association card and called Triple-A.

In the process of getting tenure at Yale, Thompson published Black Gods and Kings, The Four Moments of the Sun and African Art in Motion, about the intertwining aesthetics of West African sculpture, fabric and dance. Now Flash of the Spirit is reaching readers who aren't specialists, iconographers or academics. His next book, finally, after 30 years, will be the mambo book.

"Each successive wave of immigration — Dominican, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Jamaican — enhances the music. One can speak of 'conjugating' a beat. It's explosive. Salsa was a major turning point — in 1968 New York became virtually the musical capital of the Latin world. And all of it cross-pollinating with jazz, and pure Yoruba music like King Sunny Ade, and then, through secondary reverberations, to white groups, like the Talking Heads.

"Music is the realm of pervasive black influence. Theirs are the rhythms shaking this century. Whatever else blacks may have been denied, the airwaves are theirs. Right now major cultural collisions are taking place in New York. The city has become a color organ of cultures. If you missed the Ballet Russe and Stravinsky's Rite in Paris at the start of the century, don't worry. There are events of a Stravinskian order taking place in the barrio now."

"New York as a secret African city" is what Thompson calls his Yale undergraduate course. A "class trip" the two of us take one day begins at 89th Street and Amsterdam Avenue at a botanica, or religious-articles shop, where smoking altars to West African deities share space with Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Just around the corner is the Claremont Riding Academy, where sixth-graders from private schools take dressage lessons, and two blocks east are the co-ops in which they live on Central Park. That afternoon we traverse the dark Dominican slum below Columbia University, Harlem, Queens and Brooklyn's Jamaican and Haitian strips. Near the neoclassical dome of the Brooklyn Museum is La Boutanique St. Jacques Mejur, which sells wax figurines, "Du Me" condition candles, aerosol "Love" spray, "Success" spray and "Commanding Do My Will" spray. One of the candles is a revenge candle, which promises to convey evil, dishonor, strife, infidelity, poverty, danger and mighty enemies to whoever's name is inscribed on its side.

"This stuff is tourist hokey," Thompson says. "Vodun is a moral system of belief like any other, a mixture of Dahomean, Kongo and Christian creeds. We're living in intellectual sin with Kongo and Yoruba culture. Kongo is a legalistic-therapeutiac-visionary culture as rich and dense as Christianity or Judaism; it reminds me of Judaism.

"But Westerners always stay in temperate zones when they're looking for philosophy. Jews become Buddhists, Methodists become Bahais; they never go south. But now Kongo and Yoruba religions are thriving in New York. Just cross the street and you're in Africa."

To Thompson, the three progressive stages of black Atlantic culture are like three versions of a text inscribed on a black Atlantic Rosetta stone. He moves around New York, intellectually peripatetic, back and forth across traces of the three stages of his subject. First, the tribes from which slaves were taken in Nigeria, Mali, Cameroun and Zaire. Second, the resultant Afro-Caribbean cultures, including the vodun celebrants of Haiti and Capoeria adepts of Brazil. Last, the dance halls, clubs, pop and ghetto culture of New York.

At the Brazilian club S.O.B.'s, on Varick Street, friends, colleagues, book editors and publishing types gather, a little mystified, as five Cuban-Yoruba drummers beat out a ferocious rhythm onstage. It is the Random House book party for Thompson's Flash of the Spirit. A demonstration of Capoeria follows — a Brazilian mixture of ballet and martial art — by two shirtless athletes, in front of the bar. Thompson dances gently in his J. Press suit, head high and back, arms loose. It's intrinsic to his constant alternation between being participant and observer that he can both lecture and dance at the same time.

"African religions interweave high moral criticism with a delicious backbeat boogie," Thompson says. "They lure us into moral insight by activating the body while demanding social consciousness. Eddie Palmieri mambos can crosscut religious Yoruba musical phrasings with popular black New York."

As he dances, Thompson footnotes, mentally, the sense and cultural content of what to everyone else in the room may seem to be just a dance. "Behind all the viscosity and groove is a philosophy that says in the horror of these times there's an antidote. From drab little villages of concrete stalls and portable generators comes this message-bearing music that says you can 'play back' disaster — that you can transform it, take death and horror and turn it into a wheel and turn it into a carousel."

Another evening, at the Chateau Royale, a Haitian dance hall in Queens, Thompson's is about the only white face among a thousand elegant Haitians. Shouting in Creole above the merengue, he is in deep conversation with the bandleader; the band's been invited to Yale. On the dance floor, Thompson seems transported — the look of a man in a warm bath.

"It's a matter of releasing the moral imperatives inside this entertainment," Thompson says. "The music is both moral and sly; it carries as much dandyism and urban guile as anything written in Paris at the time of Ravel. The West can abstract the most ambrosial bits of it and be swept into moral sublimities by the beat."

Though Thompson moves through the medium of hipness, there is nothing particularly hip about Thompson himself. His is the unselfconscious, straightforward manner of the professional soldier — directed walk, never shambling, a slight pumping of the arms in stride — that conveys the impression he is always about to do something. His stance and outlook have none of the typical academic's moroseness. But his attention is highly idiosyncratic; his actions seem dictated by an agenda known only to himself.

When immersed in an utterly white ambiance, such as delivering a lecture at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art or sitting in the incongruous propriety of the master's-house drawing rooms, Thompson will sometimes lose the beat. He grows distant, as if deprived of the object of his affections. Then something commonplace — a remark, the phrasing of a remark or perhaps a scene in a movie playing at the Showcase Cinema in Orange — will offer a little spark of blackness, and he will be attentive again. He gives, at times, the impression of being on an inspection tour, looking over the white world for salutary signs of blackness. One always feels that he is following, with what he calls his "black eyes," the contours of the object of some spiritual lust.

Thompson is keen to distinguish between practicing West African religion and teaching the culture of which it is a part. Recently, someone he hardly knows asked him for spiritual advice, and Thompson was appalled. He thinks of himself as a medium, but a medium of the most ordinary sort. He feels that what he has to teach is merely what he's culled from all his global "informants." In Thompson's books, the acknowledgment sections tend to run to hundreds and hundreds of tiny little sonorous names, which if read aloud sound like listings from the Lagos, Rio, Ouagadougou and New Haven telephone directories combined. They are the sources of the "flash of the spirit," without which, Thompson says, he's "just Joe the gray-haired academic."

If there is one part of the African creeds to which Thompson adheres, it is what he perceives as their social genius. Thompson's epiphany, if there is one at his very private core, is distinguishable in the meaningful tones with which he speaks of constellated fires in the pygmy forests, of river-deity priestesses in Cameroun, of climbing Zairean trees for honey and of last New Year's Eve on the Copacabana beach in Rio, where Thompson watched thousands of proletarian maids, custodians, day laborers and their children scoop holes in the sand at midnight and fill them with candles, cheering when the lights were seized from the shore by the tide.

Those who slight the importance of such black folk rituals, and of Thompson's life's work, make him indignant. "How dare people patronize Africa?" he asks. "Those people stand like giants in teaching us how to live. There is a moral voice imbedded in the Afro-Atlantic aesthetic that the West can't grasp. They don't see the monuments, just barefoot philosophy coming from village elders. But the monument is a grand reconciling art form that tries to morally reconstruct a person without humiliating him." Sometimes when Thompson starts rolling, his voice takes on the cadences of black speech.

"These are the canons of the cool: There is no crisis that cannot be weighed and solved; nothing can be achieved through hysteria or cowardice; you must wear and show off your ability to achieve social reconciliation. Step back from the nightmare. It is a call for parlance, for congress and for self-confidence. 'The Newspaper Shirt' is all about wearing a crisis on your chest. Afro-Atlantic art forms are juridical and medical, as well as aesthetic. It is a very hard-nosed way to use art."

In Jacmel, at 8:30 in the morning, Thompson and I are breakfasting on croissants around the hotel pool, talking over the sound of drums beating down the beach. The night before, in her corrugated temple, the charming, joking priestess Madame Nerva has given her candy-striped baton to a man, with instructions to call the drummers and congregation for the next morning. There are 50 voduistes inside the vibrating temple when we arrive, including the local cop. Five drummers, led by a man named "Gasoline," keep up a wild, rolling rhythm. Nineteen black women dressed in white robes and white turbans dance out of an altar-room door into a circle around Madame Nerva, who, dressed in a gold-colored robe, is shaking a sacred rattle and bell to keep time. In turn, each of the women takes the hand of Madame Nerva and falls in a gesture that is both curtsy and prostration, holding her hand while swooping down to kiss the ground at her feet.

While two women with flags dance around him, a young man slowly draws in white powder on the floor a heart or vulva, crossed with swords and a serpent descending. The moment he finishes the image, the ceremony doubles in intensity, and the women spin around it with candles, then kneel. Suddenly, the icon is erased, and Madame Nerva rushes around the room holding aloft a three-foot white American plastic baby doll (done up with corn rows and an infantile right hand raised in the Kongo salute). One at a time, we are kissed by the doll on our left cheeks. One woman, whirling with a charm on her head, becomes possessed and begins to flail and pitch. The other dancers gently hit her to knock out the spirit. She faints, and they hold her. The line of dancers has broken; the drums stop.

"A little wild for just a run-through," Thompson says to me as we make our goodbyes. "That woman wasn't supposed to get possessed. Did you hear how Madame Nerva described possession — as 'speaking with Africa'?"

We drive back over the mountains to Port-au-Prince, heading for an afternoon flight to New York. By 3 p.m., after lunch and a jump into the hotel pool, we're having a drink on the plane, Thompson filling his notebooks with sketches and notes.

"There's a whole language to possession," he says, "a different expression and stance for each god. The West has forgotten states of holy rapture, but Christian art was built on ecstasy. The Gothic was ecstatic — cathedrals can't be comprehended without reference to it." He points to a photograph, on the cover of his notebook, of a woman with her eyes rolled back. "This is living art history. And you need to understand ecstatic states to understand ecstatic art."

Thompson twists in his seat to demonstrate possession gestures. He raises his arms, bent at the elbow, then raises them with palms up, fingers splayed. He throws his head back, eyes shut; then quickly forward; then grimaces, three different ways. He puts his arms down, takes a drink and says, "It's not so heretical to examine ecstasy. After all" — and here he draws in his notebook a figure of a man with his head thrown back, and a sightline extending upward — "the rose window at Chartres can only be seen from an ecstatic angle."