by Ritchie Valens
"La Bamba" is a traditional folk song from Veracruz, a region in southeastern Mexico that stretches along the Gulf of Mexico. Like many folk songs, its origins and full meaning are obscure.
The uncertainty surrounding "La Bamba" begins with the song's title. Some argue that the title is derived from the verb "bambolear," which means to swing or sway. Others believe that the title is linked to the African slaves brought to the Spanish colonies in Central and South America. These people from west-central Africa, what is now Angola and the Republic of the Congo, were known either as the Ambas, Baambas, or Mbambas. Portuguese slave traders captured persons from these regions and sold them into slavery in the New World.
Still others believe the name is derived from the word "bambarria." A bambarria can be a fool or an idiot; the word can also refer to a foolish action. A Veracruz legend claims that the song originated as a satirical stab at government officials who took elaborate measures to protect the wealthy coastal city from pirate attack AFTER the Dutch pirate Lorenz de Graaf, also know as "Lorencillo," had ransacked it in 1683.
Part of the difficulty in tracing the history and meaning of the song lies in the fact that there are dozens of versions and hundreds of verses. Like many folk songs, it has passed through multiple renditions, with just as many local and period-specific meanings. In fact, "La Bamba" is most properly classified as a son jarocho, a type of folk song in which singers are encouraged to generate new verses, or coplas, for the specific audience in attendance. The verses are often satirical and can be aimed at local leaders, the dancers that might be performing, or even individuals in the crowd.