There's a distinct Latin feel to Ritchie Valens' rendition of "La Bamba." In addition to singing the song in Spanish, he builds the song on a Chicano beat and laces the instrumental with mariachi-type vocal shouts.
But the song also has a distinct rock and roll feel. This is largely due to the heavy electric guitar riff that introduces the song and maintains a persistent presence even after the start of the vocals. It was a successful fusion; the rock and roll feel of the song made it a success on the pop charts, and the strong Latin feel made the song important within the history of rock and roll.
Valens achieved his Latin-rock fusion with the help of some first-rate musicians. Rene Hall (Danelectro bass), Buddy Clark (string bass), and Ernie Freeman (piano) were all accomplished studio musicians. Drummer Earl Palmer was eventually elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. Guitarist Carol Kaye, who played rhythm guitar on "La Bamba," was among the most sought-after bass players in Los Angeles. She worked with Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, and Quincy Jones.
Valens' rendition departed in significant ways from the traditional "La Bamba." For starters, in most traditional renditions, the tempo speeds up toward the end of the song. This was because "La Bamba" was a dance as well as a song, and the dance called for rapidly accelerating footwork. In addition, most traditional renditions, usually performed by Mariachi bands, used entirely different instrumentation and ground the song in a different beat.
"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.