The song La Bamba is known and loved all around the world – even in places that don’t speak Spanish. And you might be surprised to hear that the most popular version of this song was sung by Richie Valens who didn’t speak Spanish but learned the words phonetically from his aunt! Nevertheless, the song has a special kind of magic that shares a sense of happiness and celebration that has made it a favorite all around the globe!
Where did La Bamba come from? It started as a simple folksong from the region of Vera Cruz, Mexico. Most folklorists guess that the title comes from the Spanish verb “bambolear” which can mean to “to shake” or “to stomp”. It was an active dance, popular at weddings. In one folk ensemble’s version of this dance, the bride and the groom perform this dance together, doing the same set of intricate steps and creating an actual bow out of a long red ribbon (listón) by way of their fancy footwork. In many versions of La Bamba, the song gets faster and faster towards the end. And, the words? There’s no definitive set of lyrics because many of the verses were improvised. The tune and the chorus were well known in Mexico, however, clever singers or deejays would add new verses in order to charm or amuse their audiences. Although the chorus stayed the same, many different verses could be heard from one singing group to another and from one recording to another!
In 1958, Richie Valens recorded the version that would one day be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His aunt, Ernestine Reyes, helped him pronounce the lyrics and his fellow band members added a more modern, rock edge to the song. La Bamba climbed the charts and eventually made it’s way to # 345 in Rolling Stone’s Magazine’s List of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In fact, it’s the only song on the list that’s not in English! Since that time, La Bamba has been recorded by artists such as Harry Belafonte and Los Lobos and even a version in Greek as well as several other languages. Few songs share the honor of being recorded by such a wide group of performers from mariachis, to punk bands, disco singers to folksingers and even international artists!
Because I noticed how this song was loved and recognized in so many different countries where I performed, I recorded it on my first cd. I liked the lyrics that came from Richie Valens’ version, so my words are almost the same as the ones he uses. You can check out my version here: