poets laureates offers poetry that heals the soul |

By John Santos

We have lost a Rosetta Stone.

Prolific professor Robert Farris Thompson died in his sleep Monday morning due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease and after being weakened by a bout with COVID-19 earlier this year. He would have finished his 89th year on December 30.

Born December 30, 1932, Thompson was a White Texan who dramatically refuted the white supremacist fallacy through his tireless and pioneering elevation and clarification of African art, philosophy and culture. He took off the blinders and changed the way generations of international students view African art.

A veteran of the United States Army, he went to Yale on a football scholarship and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1955. He joined the faculty in 1964 and received his doctorate. in 1965. He remained at the faculty until 2015.

“Master T,” as his students and friends often called him, was Col. John Trumbull, professor of art history and professor of African-American studies at Yale University.

Thompson was also an honorary doctor of human letters from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

He has organized groundbreaking national exhibitions such as “African Art in Motion”, “The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds” and “Faces of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas”. The latter introduced himself to UC Berkeley in 1995 when local African spirituality practitioners and musicians – including myself – demonstrated the powerful knowledge of the tradition.

Thompson truly embodied the term “Maestro of Maestros”. He was an absolute giant in the field of Afro-Atlantic history and art, respected by his peers for his groundbreaking work and multiple major articles and publications, especially the seminal “Flash of the Spirit” (1984) and “Faces of the Gods”. (1993). If he didn’t invent, he certainly standardized the term “black Atlantic”. He was a brilliant presenter, writer and teacher. But unlike many, if not most academics, he was also loved, revered, and respected by the musicians, artists, and communities he wrote about.

Initiated in Africa to Erinle, the deity of deep and calm waters, Thompson was trendy, original and totally immersed in African and African music, dance, language, art and history. His life of research, immersion and visionary work formed a bridge between black America and its African roots.

Countless trips to Africa, the southern United States, the Caribbean, and Central and South America have informed his passionate work. He has written on sculpture, painting, architecture, dance, music, language, poetry, food, the transatlantic slave trade, African history, stolen antiquities, African spirituality, African retention , Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, Black Argentina, New York, México, mambo, tango, jazz, spirit possession and much more. He recorded African percussions. He befriended music giants from the African diaspora such as Julito Collazo, Babatunde Olatunji and Mongo Santamaría.

I first saw his handwriting circa 1970 on the back of the 1961 Mongo Santamaria LP classic red vinyl, Arriba! La Pachanga (Fantasy 3324). They are arguably among the deepest liner notes ever written.

He told me that he used our 1984 recording, Bárbara Milagrosa, of the Orquesta Batachanga, to show the danzón-mambo to his students. I almost burst into tears when he invited me and Omar Sosa to speak and perform for his students at Yale, his alma mater, where he was a rock star. It was an unforgettable occasion for me.

He wrote wonderful cover notes on our 2002 Grammy nominated production, SF Bay, by the Machete Ensemble. He has gone out of his way to support and encourage countless students and subscribers like me. I was very honored to have him as a friend and mentor.

We will miss him.

John Santos is a seven-time Grammy nominated percussionist and former director of the Orquesta Batachanga and Machete Ensemble and current director of the John Santos Sextet.

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