Robert Farris Thompson: Doctor of Soul

Robert Farris Thompson likes to call himself a “mambologist.”

This may be too technical a term for the layman, so let me suggest another title for him: Doctor of Soul.

Doctor because anyone with a PhD has the right to call himself that.

Doctor because the word comes from the Latin word “to teach” and Thompson is nothing if not a master teacher.

Doctor also means someone involved in the process of healing and it’s this third meaning, I want to focus on.

When Thompson came into the world in the Anglo community of El Paso, Texas of 1932, the idea of studying African culture and its popular manifestations in the Americas with respect did not exist in academia or in the dominant culture at large.

His career has been a decades long process of healing this cruel ignorance.

Thompson’s story…

Living so close to the border of Mexico, even as a child he appreciated the profound difference crossing a border can make.

Then at 18 on a trip to Mexico City with his family lightening stuck: He heard a Cuban band playing mambo.

Mambo is a music. Mambo is also an approach to life.

Digging deeply into this philosophy has been the focus of Thompson’s life and his path breaking studies have literally changed the world.

Now people who care to be educated can see that Africa is not “a primitive place over there”, but the fountain of a deep aesthetic and ethical culture that is at the root of much of what is best about the Americas.

That Thompson managed to start his monumental work inside of a university in the 1950s is a demonstration of mambo itself. No career or course of study could have been more far-fetched in those narrow minded, culturally ignorant times.

If you’re at all interested in black culture and black culture in the Americas. I urge you to watch all the videos.

All I can add is that it’s a shame that so few of his “performances” (they go far beyond lectures) have been recorded and made available to the public.

They’re among the greatest intellectual and cultural gems produced anywhere by anyone in the last 50 years.

“We can’t know how American we are unless we know how black we are.” – Robert Farris Thompson

Interview with Robert Farris Thompson

Robert Farris Thompson on Jose Bedia

The Afro-Argentine Legacy of Tango

In addition, to the videos on this page – every single one of them is a revelation and must-watching for anyone who loves music and black culture – this short article is a good introduction to him. 

– Ken McCarthy
Jazz on the Tube

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