The confessions of a Mambo Man

My life changed in March 1950. I ran into mambo on a spring break trip to Mexico City. Mambo, an intricately blended Afro-Cuban dance music, involved me in a world beyond myself, a world that connected with the excitement and alarums of my time. For instance, when the Korean War broke out June 25, 1950, mambo filled the intervals between that threat and danger with sonic pleasures and refusals to become neurotic. Mambo l’Atomica turned out to be more interested in a Mexico City exotic dancer of the same name than melancholy meditation on the possible nuclear end of the world, even though such concerns were voiced within that mambo. Here mambo rhymed with T.S. Eliot: ‘mankind can not bear too much reality.’

There was an extraordinary mambo, The Newspaper Shirt [La Camisa de Papel] written in Mexico City in late June 1950 by a black Cuban composer named Justi Barreto. He mentioned the Korean War. He implied, with scored-in air raid sirens, the threat of World War III. But what did the composer suggest we do? Cut down to size the scare headlines, wear the bad news as a shirt and get on with it. I took his point, immediately liberated.

I would go on to discover that at ideal perfect levels mambo was dancing the world towards genuine being, teaching us how to become ourselves through others, and even how to triumph over time. It hit me with the force that the Beatles would unleash in the ’60s, both musics indicating that classical traditions no longer monopolized serious issues or achievement. I noted that minds richer than mine, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Jack Kerouac and Anatole Broyard were moved by mambo and wrote about it.

For instance, in the most ecstatic passage of “On The Road” Kerouac ventured: “The mambo beat is the conga beat from Kongo, the river of Africa and the world; it’s really the world beat.” Encouraged by this, I determined to write a book probing mambo to its very Kongo roots. But every time I wrote a chapter it turned into a book of its own.

Notes on rival influences from southwestern Nigeria turned into Black Gods and Kings. A chapter on the organizing principles of mambo became African Art in Motion. I thought I might compare mambo structure with another well-known Latino tradition and, bam, I found I had written another book, my latest, called “Tango: The Art History of Love.” Now, only now, years later, night-owling it in the west corner of beloved TD, am I finally writing the mambo book. It will either be called “The World Beat” or “Stacatto Incandescence,” or maybe both. I’ll let my daughter and son decide.

Which brings me to the talk that I will be giving today for visiting parents at 3:15 p.m. in Linsly-Chittenden, room 101. It essentially rehearses some of the main cultural influences flowing from the kingdom of Kongo to the Black Americas. First appear obvious Kongoisms, the conga drum and the conga line, about which people have heard. Then come Charleston, the twist, jazz jug bands, snake hips, conga grinds and other vitalities.

The people of Kongo long ago evolved an ideographic writing system called bidimbu [‘the signs’] and we will look at some of these signs and how they also appear in body language. Key gestures include arms akimbo, the sign of sass, left hand on hip, right hand out and extended, the power pose that opened and closed the famous law courts of Kongo and which seems to echo in the cheerleader pose of U.S. football half-time episodes. Triumphantly present in Black America is yangalala, hands held on high, fingers separated. This is the gesture of ecstasy, when you’ve won and you’re oh-so-happy.

Compare a photograph from the ’40s showing Ted Williams coming in for a home run. A teammate rushes up to shake his hand in congratulations. But both hands are low at the level of the waist. Compare the high-fives of 2007. I wonder where they came from. Lastly I’ll end with a mambo that moves from classical traditions in a stately danzon to hard-swinging mambo while musicians chant to Saint Barbara, asking her humbly, “Ayudanos vivir! “ [Help us to live] — not quite what you’d expect from party music. For a finale, the words of a New York Puerto Rican mambo man: “Imagine living, feeling inferior to no one, but feeling superior to no one either. When you treat everyone the same, the world opens up to you”.

Robert Farris Thompson is the Col. John Trumbull Professor of the History of Art and the Timothy Dwight College Master.

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