Sitting in on one of Professor Robert Farris Thompson’s ’55 GRD ’65 classes is like going to a happening in the 1960s. Thompson, the Col. John Trumbull professor in the history of art, drums on the lectern. His skill for creating a complicated African rhythm is atypical for a guy with an “old Yale” professorial look. He forces the entire class to get up and dance rumba. He challenges a student in the lecture to a staring contest.
Thompson, known to those in Timothy Dwight College as “Master T,” is now bringing his teaching style to “Flash of a Spirit: A Celebration of Robert Farris Thompson,” a symposium celebrating his work Sept. 12 in the Yale University Art Gallery lecture hall. The symposium is sponsored by the Chubb Fellowship and the History of Art and African-American Studies departments.
Thompson, who will step down as master of TD after this year, spoke to the News about the Afro-Atlantic world, mambo and his recent travels.
QHow did the symposium come about?
AThe symposium came about from the idea of a former graduate student of mine who wanted to gather in my students and write a festschrift [a book about an academic that is published while he or she is alive] in my honor. Other former graduate students rallied around her and the central administration generously weighed in by turning the event into a Chubb and that’s how it happened.
QWhat do you plan on discussing in your keynote address “Communiqué from Afro-Atlantis”?
AIn my keynote I plan to take the audience on a tour of my most recent researches, summer 2009, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Lima, Peru and Kongo. South America, always important, looms ever more key as one of the main provinces of African cultural influence, especially Brazil, and I will talk about this and illustrate my points with slides and PowerPoint and video.
QIn your classes, you combine lecture with music. Will the symposium be of a similar format?
AThere will be plenty of music: live Afro-Cuban, live Afro-Puerto Rican, digital hip-hop and more.
QHow important is music to the discussion of the Afro-Atlantic world?
AMusic is the master translator, the medium of black soul.
QWhat do you think musicians like Oriki Omi Oddara, Sonic Serendipity and Alma Moyo will bring to the symposium? Can you describe their musical styles?
AOriki Omi Oddara is a rumba group led by a genius nicknamed Pupy and we can expect incandescent drumming and witty byplay on the dancing floor, particularly the fiery couple dance rumba called guaguancó and the highly competitive male solo rumba style called columbia. There is a lot of mime and satire involved; they are tropical rivals to Marcel Marceau. Sonic Serendipity is spearheaded by Greg Tate, a leading black culture critic who will operate beats and tones on a Macintosh laptop, creating a “digital drum-choir.” I’m really looking forward to Greg and his colleagues. Alma Moyo is virtually the house band at TD, playing the nation music of Puerto Rico, bomba. The leader is Alex LaSalle, a performer/scholar of black Caribbean dance history. In bomba the dancer sidles up to the main drummer and challenges him or her with sharply etched steps called piquetes. The drummer must pick up and repeat every gesture, every stomp, every crossover, like an amiable oscillograph of a total partee. Two minutes with Pupy or Greg or Alex and Puerto Rican women and you will understand why I have to teach what I teach. That’s one of many reasons they were chosen.
QWhich speakers and lectures are you most looking forward to hearing during the symposium?
AI am looking forward to all of them, start to finish.
QHow did you initially become interested in Afro-Atlantic cultures?
AI ran into mambo in Mexico City in the spring of 1950 and the music, intensely multi-metric and peppered with suspended accentuations, challenged me as deeply as the music of the Beatles challenged another generation. At Yale I was lucky to have the freedom to explore this dance and lifestyle across many years.
QIn your words, how would you define the term “Afro-Atlantic”?
AAfro-Atlantic refers to ancient West and Central African organizing principles of song, art and dance, crossing the Atlantic from Africa and becoming creolized and transformed in the black Americas. It illumines art and philosophy connecting black Atlantic worlds.
QYou’re teaching “New York City Mambo: Microcosm of Black Creativity” this semester. How long have you been teaching this course? Has the course changed since you first started teaching it?
AI have been teaching mambo forever, but constant field trips keep adding to the sum of information — as per example, a new lecture on black Peru and the painting of Victor Humareda, the Toulouse Lautrec of the Lima tango night.
QThere is often dancing during your classes and lectures. Do you think there will be dancing at the symposium?
AYes, very likely.