La Bamba is a traditional folk dance from Veracruz, Mexico.
Usually performed at weddings, the dance “La Bamba” traditionally had a ritual significance. Over the course of the dance, the couple getting married would tie a knot in a red ribbon with their feet to demonstrate their new union. Rumor has it that Valens, who was born and raised in Southern California, had to learn the lyrics of the song phonetically from a family member, as he himself spoke English.
Since the Spanish word gracia can mean either humor or grace, this line can be translated more than one way.
Both translations of the word gracia, humor or grace, work in the context of the song, but the meaning of “La Bamba” is significantly changed by the translation chosen. If to dance the Bamba one needs a little grace, the narrator's approach to his dance would seem serious. But if to dance the Bamba one needs a bit of humor, the narrator would seem to concede that most dancers bring few skills to the task.
This line, which means higher and higher or faster and faster, hints at the accelerated rhythm that comes toward the end of the song.
In traditional renditions of "La Bamba," the rhythm accelerated significantly toward the end of the song. As performed within a wedding ceremony, this accelerating rhythm would force the dancers to speed up the intricate footwork of the dance. Ritchie Valens did not pick up the tempo in his rendition, but when Los Lobos covered the song in 1987 they incorporated this traditional feature of the song.
There are several theories regarding the origins of the word "bamba."
Folklorists and music historians disagree as to the origins of this word. Some believe that it is rooted in the verb bambolear, which means to sway or swing. Others believe that the word is connected to the slaves—known as the Ambas or Baambas or Mbambas—that were brought to the Spanish colonies in Central and South America from Central Africa. Still others believe that the word is derived from the word bambarria, which is used to describe a fool or foolish action. Today, most Americans simply hear the word and think “rock and roll.”