As students’ casual chatter wafts among the photos and cozy furniture of the Timothy Dwight master’s office, it is not immediately apparent that this is the residence of a self-described “mambo man.” Master T — TD Master Robert Thompson — is often said to be “high on life.” More often than not, music is what gets him there.
An art history professor who specializes in Afro-Atlantic cultures, Master T tells stories of his daily discoveries: “One day in Sterling I found a book on Kongo that had the exact original of the Kongo chant I had been seeking for years — zibula makutu ye widi mambu — open your ears and hear the words of the Lord.”
As a child, radio was Master T’s main point of access to the world beyond his hometown of El Paso, Texas. Through radio, he encountered Polynesian music of the Pacific island chain that was “watered-down but real enough to spark the search for the real thing.” This was one of Master T’s first encounters with the power of radio, but it was certainly not his last.
“I heard my first bossa nova crackling over the air on a jazz program from Los Angeles, picked up on a car radio deep in the night in El Paso,” he says. Even those who know Master T might have to stretch their imaginations to visualize him staying up into the wee hours of the night to twiddle with the radio as a child. But his generous nature and eclectic store of knowledge hint at an upbringing full of diverse cultural experiences.
Master T’s years as an undergraduate and graduate student at Yale (he pursued a bachelor’s degree, master’s, and Ph.D. in New Haven) strongly influenced his pursuit of music. “Yale intensified my ability to seek out the facts,” he says. “I was blessed with colleagues who were true intellectuals, interested in new concepts and new ideas. They encouraged me, especially [former Yale Professor] Bob Herbert and [Sterling Professor Emeritus] Vince Scully, to blend music with art in my studies,” a theme that echoes throughout Thompson’s life. His devotion to African music and art began with an article on Afro-Cuban dance published in 1958. Since then, he has published texts on the structure and meaning of African dance and the bark cloth art of the pygmies of the Ituri Forest. His most recent book is called Tango: The Art History of Love.
Master T also learned to play a mix of styles on different instruments, including blues piano, conga drums, and the mbira — a Central African thumb piano made from a simple wooden soundbox with small metal keys for plucking on the top. Having learned what he could from listening to records, Master T undertook the task of making his own 12-inch LP in the late fifties: “Safari of One — Primitive Rhythms on African Thumb Pianos & West Indian Drums.”
Even as Timothy Dwight’s master, Thompson lives out his passion for African-influenced music and dance every day. His legendary lecture course, “New York Mambo: Microcosm of Black Creativity,” tracks the rise of New York mambo and salsa. As one student puts it in a course evaluation: “Fantastic course. Little coherence, but the point gets across — MAMBO IS LIFE, and that’s about as cool as life gets. All in all, a hell of a good time! More teachers need to run around banging out beats on desks and sharing their passion for their subject.” Not bad for a guy who got his Ph.D. in 1965.
Students also describe the myriad musical events that have been sponsored by the Timothy Dwight master’s office: salsa dancing lessons in the dining hall, performances played on the Japanese koto, Eastern European klezmer, a classical Brahms concert, even an old-school break dancing show. From his border-town roots in El Paso to the friendly atmosphere of his office, Master T has brought the life and love of a mambo man to New Haven.