Gagosian Quarterly

Winter 2019 Issue

Overture: Ridding the Passing Moments of Their Fat

Art historian Robert Farris Thompson has maintained a passion for Afro-Cuban dance and music since experiencing, in 1944, a conga line in his hometown of El Paso. Here, he tracks the spiritual, linguistic, and musical roots of mambo.

Couples dancing the mambo at the Palladium Ballroom, New York, 1954

Couples dancing the mambo at the Palladium Ballroom, New York, 1954

Robert Farris Thompson

A longtime art history professor at Yale, Robert Farris Thompson may be best known for his book Flash of the Spirit, published in 1983 and still in print today. Tracing continuities between the black cultures of Africa and the Americas, this hugely influential work was groundbreaking in both manner and method. The teenage Thompson was led to his love of Africa by popular music and dance. He has dreamed of a book on the mambo for decades; the manuscript is now in progress.

Desire can be crushed by so-called revolutionary ideology, focusing only on what they think is uplifting but never paying attention to the ecstatic.
—Robin D. C. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, 2002

Mambo is ecstasy. More than dance hall motion, it is backed by the spirit, for it reflects, to a partial but critical degree, the classical faith of the ancient African kingdom of Kongo, this music’s birthplace. It also refers to other black Cuban faiths like Abakuá, Dahomean vodun, and the worship of Yoruba orisha. Mambo reveals black faiths as world religions and does so with love and dignity.

Starting around 1907, artists in Paris—Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Georges Braque, André Derain, and others—stole fire from African sculpture, having little or no idea of its metaphysical foundations. Modigliani creatively rephrased the long-nosed Baoulé masks of Ivory Coast and, even more impressively, the masks of the Ngil judges society among the Fang of Gabon. There was no way for him to know the codes written into the exaggerated length of the Fang line, an anatomic dramatization that K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau suggests may imply the “length,” the depth, the seriousness, of the matters of law that the mask’s wearer would survey and resolve. White porcelain clay covered the mask with the color of the other world; this meant that the wearer’s insight and power stemmed from the ancestors. The image was more than a mask: it was a meditation on the ancestral sources of justice. But to Modigliani it was “style.”

To strengthen his orchestral palette, Darius Milhaud incorporated African and Afro-Cuban percussion in works such as Concerto for Percussion (1930), whose instrumentation includes the Afro-Cuban guagua, a wooden tube played on its side. No more than Modigliani did he surmise that some of these instruments, especially the drums, excited possession by the spirit. But some modernists knew. Witness the overlap between black women’s religious dancing in Georgia and aspects of Martha Graham’s choreography: white robes, elbows out, knees deeply bent. Brenda Gottschild similarly traces “innovations” in the work of George Balanchine to high-affect moves borrowed from the lindy and other black vernacular dances. Her book Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance includes a telling photograph of Balanchine cavorting with Katherine Dunham and other members of the royalty of black choreography.1

John Cage is on record denying black influence on his work. But the person for whom he first “prepared” a piano, setting objects between its strings to change its sound, was none other than the African American choreographer Syvilla Fort, disciple of Dunham and dancer of everything from quadrille to samba to mambo. Fort kept badgering the composer until finally, adding pieces of wood and metal to the piano’s strings, he came up with something that sounded right to her.2

Mambo emerged in the middle of all this, between white appropriation and black control, between Picasso and hip-hop. It was a phase of strong beauty. There were many founding fathers: Orestes López and his brother Israel “Cachao” López, Arsenio Rodríguez, Dámaso Pérez Prado, Chano Pozo, Bebo Valdés, and René Hernández. All were black. No one could “cover” them.

López and Rodríguez absorbed special strengths through knowledge of Palo, the Cuban version of the classical religion of Kongo. They saw how Palo practitioners would summon spirits by shouting out jei, jei, jei. López, in around 1938–39, would summon musical excitement from his fellow musicians by shouting out Mambo! Mambo! Mambo! (Say it! Say it! Say it! in creole Ki-Kongo). This named a new music and a new dance. In his live performances Rodríguez similarly cued the swing of his music by shouting Diablo! (Make it devilishly hot, make it swing).3 Calling on the devil and his fiery domain related to other hot cries to make things happen, like “Echale salsita” (Put pepper sauce on it) and “Anda cocinando” (Get out there and cook), both echoing the Kongo cry “Twisa ndungu” (Heat it up with pepper) when music lacks power or taste.4 Across the Atlantic blacks praised rhythms that were strong and swinging by calling them “hot, the more exciting the hotter.”5

Early mambo cries to make the music hot inspired a particularly aggressive and talented composer named Dámaso Pérez Prado. To show independence from his colleagues, he didn’t shout Mambo! or Diablo! Instead, in his 1949 Havana recordings he can be heard activating sidemen with a signature shout that fuses the Palo cry jei with u, becoming je-u! (pronounced “hey-oo”). Some misheard it as a grunt—so, on Broadway in 1954 in Damn Yankees, Gwen Verdon chanted “Who’s got the pain when they do the mambo, who’s got the pain when they go unnh.” But Prado’s cry wasn’t a grunt, it was pure admonition: give us mambo, make it cook, bring down enabling fire and act! Thus did the masters of mambo deepen their art by summoning spirit.

Overture: Ridding the Passing Moments of Their Fat

Professional Cuban dancers at the Palladium Ballroom, New York, 1954

I grew up in El Paso, Texas, an early training center for a globalized world. In around 1944, at El Paso’s Dudley Grammar School, I saw a Mexican American girl lead the entire school in a mass conga line. She was clearly calling us to somewhere else.

I came closer to that somewhere else when I got my first record, a 78 of “Canto karabalí,” by the great Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. At the time I had no idea what “Canto karabalí” meant—actually “Song of Calabar,” a city in southern Nigeria—but the melody got to me. It was an acoustical tarot card that said “This is your future.”

Growing up in a Latino/Anglo city, I heard on the local radio station both country numbers like Cowboy Copas’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and, from a station broadcasting from Juárez, Mexican hits like Duo Michoacan’s “Amor chiquito.” In the fall of 1948 I started to study Spanish. I prepared for my first test to the beat of Afro-Cuban records. When I sat down to write my exam, the verbs and vocabulary came tumbling down while music played in my mind. From that moment on, Spanish language and Afro-Cuban music took command of my soul.

I would go on to believe that mambo was dancing us all toward genuine being, toward becoming ourselves through awareness of others.

Mambo is a blend: Afro-Cuban, jazz, and classical. It took me from calm to excitement, like a jump from black-and-white into Technicolor. Mambo’s hard-swinging minimalism gave me access to a style that challenged me to my very essence.

I moved to the East Coast in 1947 and in the 1950s spent a lot of time at the Palladium Ballroom, a dance hall at Broadway and 53rd Street that was the epicenter of New York mambo. Mambo in that city made you realize that one of the luckiest things that happened to American popular culture was the Jones Act of 1917, which bestowed American citizenship on Puerto Ricans. Two of New York’s major mambo kings, Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez, were Puerto Rican, and songs of theirs such as Rodríguez’s “La familia” (The family) documented lives in transition from the island to New York. I would go on to believe that mambo was dancing us all toward genuine being, toward becoming ourselves through awareness of others. To proclaim this rich cross-cultural achievement became the goal of my teaching at Yale from the moment I started there, in 1964.

Contexts in Kongo civilization have a bearing on mambo: the king’s court of judgment, where jurisprudence was leavened with interludes of dance and the playing of drums and royal ivory horns of the spirit; the Kongo belief that life can’t be lived unless danced; and the resolution of conflicts and problems (mambu) by ritual experts (banganga) versed in strong songs and proverbs that helped to restore order and harmony. In Kongo, problems whether serious or minor are seen as a cycle. In the ancient capital, Mbanza Kongo, serious matters were taken to the king (ntinu) for judgment, smaller ones to an herbalist-diviner (nganga). When a solution was found, when judgment was achieved, jubilation took place. In the northern city of Lwangu, men danced waving flags to celebrate winning a lawsuit. They were ecstatically “waving the words” (minika mambu) of justice, vindication, and victory.

Overture: Ridding the Passing Moments of Their Fat

Tito Puente, 1954

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, slavers captured Bakongo people and brought them to Cuba, where their religion took root. Re-creating the social order they had known, black Cubans elected kings and queens by popular vote. Even where there was no king or queen, they honored banganga as leaders, healers, and judges. The banganga worked, as in the old kingdom, with charms and medicines imbued with indestructible protective spirit (minkisi), which they inserted in iron cauldrons called prendas, “pledges” in Spanish—the pledge being to heal, to resolve conflict, to obey the sanctions of Palo. Songs sung to the prendas, stating a problem and asking for resolution, directly called on the spirit in the cauldron. These songs were called “mambos,” a creolization of the Kongo mambu.

In the ancient Kongo kingdom in Africa, mambu—problems or legal actions—could be symbolized visually on scepters, the carved lids of ceremonial containers, and other objects. In Cuba such messages were verbal, sung to the prenda and the listening congregation and studded with proverbs and popular images. When a person complained about the arrogance of someone young, for example, a song might run, “Who knows more, Isabel or Isabelita [the seasoned woman or the immature child]?” The contemporary Cuban artist José Bedia, painter and Palo initiate, has restored such mambos to visual imagery. He was in effect reestablishing a link between visual mambu in Africa and mambos in Cuba.

Various forms of dance music prepared the way for mambo. Four are Afro-Cuban: rumba, conga, son montuno, and danzón. Three stem from black North American, Andalusian Moorish, and black Puerto Rican sources: lindy, flamenco, and bomba. Rumba, dancing to Kongo-derived drums and song, and conga, parading in rhythm down carnival streets to an ecstatic pattern of one-two-three-kick, were early examples of Central African impact on Cuba. Son montuno was orchestral, reflecting the cosmopolitanism of its city of origin, Santiago de Cuba. Its guitar licks, transposed to piano, became part of the rise of the mambo. Danzón, emerging in the western coastal city of Matanzas in around 1875, subtly Africanized the playing of European orchestral instruments—flute, violins, piano, double bass, and timpani. Danzón composers fused their melodies and rhythms with themes from opera and other classical music, showing erudition in the midst of good times. Their ultimate innovation was the peremptory chanting of the word “mambo,” retaining its Kongo meaning of “words,” “problems,”“issues.” Shouted out, this word challenged musicians to express what they really meant.

Mambo never lost the Kongo taste for solving or challenging issues with hard-driving beats to accelerate a search for justice.

Mambo” had been a part of black Cuban speech since the late eighteenth century.6 A hundred years later came a further attestation, a person shouting “Mambo, caballero!,” meaning “Say it, sir!”7 Since music is viewed as a form of argument the Afro-Atlantic world over—compare Jamaican reggae (from rege-rege, argument or dispute) and Cuban rumba yambu (argument rumba)—it seems inevitable that a musician would have called for an ultimate “argument” in music, challenging his colleagues to speak up and share their convictions. When Orestes López did just that, in around 1938, he got the whole band playing time. The new sound was born: mambo.

The new music gave us distilled democracy in sound. Each musician contributed a riff (golpe, literally “hit”) to the whole. Arias and egocentric crooning dissolved in shared instrumental ecstasy. This hocketing marvel had a clear-cut demand: become yourself through others. Mambo never lost the Kongo taste for solving or challenging issues with hard-driving beats to accelerate a search for justice. Julio Cueva, for example, composed a strange song, “Desintegrando” (Disintegrating, in the album of the same name, with songs from 1944–47), alluding indirectly to the invention of the atomic bomb and by extension the threat of nuclear annihilation. As Ned Sublette noted drily in his book on the music of Cuba, this was “unusual party fare.”8 And in 1950 Justi Barreto composed the striking mambo “La camisa de papel” (The shirt made of newspaper), again implying the nuclear threat by weaving an air raid siren into the exposition of the song.

On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. In the week Barreto read about the invasion, he was impressed by a man sauntering down San Juan de Letrán in Mexico City, dressed in a sport shirt emblazoned with newpaper headlines.9 Inspired by these two events, Barreto repaired to his room in the Hotel Meave and composed a strong mambo. Later he went into the RCA-Victor studio and recorded it, with Prado orchestrating and Kiko Mendive singing. The lyrics:

Vaya padrino

La camisa de papel, negro
Ha! Tremendo copete!
Hey, parece buena
Ya no tengo pena, hey!
Y me la voy a poner.

Hey! Me gusta mucho

Y lo dice todo hey!
Mi camisa de papel.

En la primera plana, hey!

Dice cosas que asustan, hey!
Pero lo que no me gusta, hey!
Que esta ilusion.

Dice que si la guerra hey!

De susto no tengo gana, hey!
Pero lo que es jarana, hey!
Yo voy a brindar.

Vaya rotatira!
Ay, mi camisita ay,

Yo me la pienso poner
Me gusta mucho

Esta diciendo que en Korea

Se ha formado beem bam bom boom
beem bam bom boom

La tecla, negro [Prado piano solo]

Ultimas noticias, negro? [air raid siren sounds]
!vaya! candela!
[The song breaks into a miniature montuno, with call-and-response: La camisa de papel!]

Ay, pero mira

Cosa rica
La camisa de papel
Me gusta mucho
La camisa de papel
Me la pienso poner
La camisa de papel



Hey, best buddy [i.e., Prado]

Dig the newspaper shirt, negro
Wow, what a pompadour [Kiko Mendive’s coiffure]
Hey, it’s looking good
And I’m no longer afraid, hey!
And I’m going to put it on.

Hey! I like it a lot.

And it talks about everything, hey!
My shirt made of newspaper.

On the front page, hey!

It says things that frighten you, hey!
But what’s not pleasing, hey!
Treat as illusion.

It certainly says war, hey!

Afraid, I want no part of it, hey!
But whatever’s festive, hey!
That’s what I’ll offer.

Start rolling, printing press!
My beloved little shirt

I think I’ll put it on
I like it a lot.

It’s saying that in Korea

There has started beem bam bom boom
beem bam bom boom

Hit the keyboard, negro [Prado piano solo]

Want the latest news, negro? [air raid siren sounds]
Run for it! Fire!
[The song breaks into a miniature montuno, with call-and-response: “The shirt made of newspaper”]

Ay, but look

It feels good
The shirt made of newspaper.
I like it a lot
The shirt made of newspaper.
I think I’ll put it on
The shirt made of newspaper.

Spell it out for me!

Where Medea’s dress in Euripides’s play is poisoned totally, Barreto’s garment mixes terror with decorum, pain with pleasure. In saying he’ll wear the shirt, the singer accepts life’s blend of good and evil. He sidesteps doom with pleasure. In this regard he recalls Lucretius, who wrote that fear of death interrupts the flow of life, destroying value and meaning. It sets us up for demise. I remember what the novelist Robert Penn Warren told me in a seminar at Yale in 1955, when I confided to him my fear of nuclear annihilation: “Then you might as well contemplate your own inevitable death, young man,” he replied. In other words: Get on with it.

Lucretius asks us to consider Epicurus, who argued that if we free ourselves from anxiety about death, “then death is nothing to us.” Thus liberated, we live out our days in relative peace and pleasure. Legitimate pleasures—a glass of wine, an evening with friends, a trip with a lover, the birth of a child—insulate us from fear of the inevitable. Barreto says the same thing in his fast-moving lyric. He flaunts his bravery, asking a printing press to roll out more challenges. He asks the world to play it back, to bring it on—just as, in wearing news stories about the hard realities of life, the owner of the newspaper shirt cuts them down to size and turns them into signs of power. He reminds me of the Mande hunters in West Africa who wear shirts bristling with animal horns, medicines, and amulets to insulate them from forest dangers.

Overture: Ridding the Passing Moments of Their Fat

Bandleader and comedian Spike Jones with bandleader Dámaso Pérez Prado

Prado deals with anxieties in his own aggressive way, striking the keyboard with return to the life force. Danger is at the door. An air raid siren sounds. At that precise moment, Afro-Cuban percussionists take over. They back us up with iron gong and drums. Call-and-response bursts briefly into action, the chorus chanting, three times, “The shirt made of newspaper.”

This is a mambo that recalls the original mambu, in Kongo: the voicing of problems or legal actions in order to work toward possible solutions. When I first met Barreto in person, in New York in 1994, I learned that he was a fully initiated member of the Kongo-derived Cuban religious group called Palo Mayombe. A number of his songs reflect Kongo influence, including “La camisa de papel.” Barreto cites a Kongo word of spiritual intensification: “Hey!” Kongo priests in Cuba use this animating shout to bring people to spiritual attention. Priests can surround a novitiate, chanting “Hey, hey, hey” into his ear. This blasts him into the other world.

There is a relationship between Kongo-Cuban praise poetry for the powerful spirit Sarabanda—lord of iron and deity of the mountain, famous for protecting and guarding his followers—and Barreto’s lyric.11 Sarabanda’s presence is intuited wherever a line ends with a strong stress; he lives in these accents in this song for him:

Sarabanda me da

Mi Sarabanda para cura
Mi Sarabanda me vera
Mi Sarabanda para cura

Sarabanda will give me what I need

Sarabanda will cure me
Sarabanda will look after me
Sarabanda will cure me

All lines end with an accented final syllable. They promise continuity in the use of the future tense. The scholar of Afro-Cuban culture Fernando Ortiz Fernández talks about this tradition:

Observe the sharp endings of the lines of these [mambos]. They are generally phrased with Spanish verbs. [Paleros] take advantage of strong endings in third-person-singular formations, particularly as to the future tense.12

Thus ver, “to see,” is more or less neutral, but vera, “will see,” with the accent on the final “a,” adds strength to the end of a line. Accents declare the potency of Sarabanda. At the same time, the line “Sarabanda will look after me” (Sarabanda me vera) shows us, one more time, how future-tense blessings ideally wrestle on your behalf with destiny itself.

So “La camisa de papel” embodies a trace of Kongo literary tradition: “Hey!” helps out wherever a line might have ended weak. “Hey” drops out where the strong final accent of the future tense takes over. All this builds to a climax when the singer offers a miniature percussion-led festival, as an antidote to fear. We march straight through perturbations and come out stronger. We strive ultimately for a basic blessing of the Kongo religion: keeping the circle of your life complete (lunda lukongolo lunga).

Mambo as dance is self-transcendence. Talent and confidence step out in the world. The finest mamboists absorbed and recast the steps of world dances—rumba, jazz, flamenco, and ballet. They found potency in these idioms. Mambo women and mambo men saluted traditions with love and respect. The world opened up for them.

1Brenda D. Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), after p. 79.

2The story of Syvilla Fort badgering John Cage was shared with me by the art historian Judith Wilson at Yale in the 1970s.

3See David F. García, Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), p. 50.

4For an early study of this concept see Richard Alan Waterman, “Hot Rhythm in Negro Music,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 1, no. 1 (Spring 1948), pp. 14–37.

5Ibid., p. 24.

6Ramón Guirao, Orbita de la poesía afrocubana, 1928–37: Antología (Havana: Ucar, García y Cía, 1938).

7Odilio Urfe, interview with the author, Havana, April 3, 1960.

8Ned Sublette, Cuba and Its Music (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2004), pp. 509, 510.

9Justi Barreto, letter to the author, March 4, 1958, and interview with the author, New York, fall 1994.

10Lucretius, The Nature of Things, c. 50 b.c. (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), pp. vii–x.

11On Sarabanda’s connection with the mountain see Harold Courlander, “Musical Instruments of Cuba,” The Musical Quarterly 28, no. 2 (April 1942), p. 237.

12Fernando Ortiz Fernández, Los bailes y el teatro de los negros en el folclor de Cuba (Havana: Ciencias Sociales, 1951).

Text excerpted from an in-progress manuscript of a book on the mambo by Robert Farris Thompson; photos, from top: Yale Joel/Life Magazine/LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images; Yale Joel/LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images; Bob Parent/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Bettman–UPI via Getty Images

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