Thursday, April 7, 2011

History: La Bamba!

In May of 1683, infamous buccaneers Laurens de Graff, Michel de Grammont and Nicholas Van Horn raided the fortified Spanish city of Vera Cruz in what is now Mexico. They led a flotilla of ships and an army of sailors that rivaled Morgan’s forces at Porto Bello and did a substantial amount of damage, particularly to the unsuspecting citizenry who slumbered peacefully in their beds as the ladrones landed on their beach. An orgy of butchery, torture, pillage and death ensued in what may have been one of the bloodiest raids of the buccaneer era.

As history would have it, most people are unfamiliar with the sacking of Vera Cruz. Even natives of the modern Mexican state of Veracruz have very little memory of what was a major setback to the area’s economy and stability at the time. But music, as so often happens, does remember and a faint echo of the misery that befell Vera Cruz can be heard in a popular folk song which became an international hit in the early days of rock and roll.

Ritchie Valens’ 1958 adaptation of the traditional Veracruz song “La Bamba” is probably familiar to many. The infectious and memorable tune and lyrics came from a song originally played mariachi style to accompany a ballet folklorico performed by couples at weddings in Veracruz. The song’s lyrics address the dance for the most part, indicating that “…to dance La Bamba, you must have a little bit of grace…” One lyric which repeats over and over, however, is incongruous to the rest of the song’s reference to dancing: “Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan” which translates in modern Spanish to “I am not a sailor, I am a captain.”

Older versions of the song seem not to have been meant for dancing, but as storytelling ballads. Spain still had a strong tradition of balladeering in the late 17th century, particularly in the Catalan and Basque regions which had been influenced by the Southern French tradition of the troubadours. The guitar was the instrument of choice for these men who were often attached to a nobleman. In the New World, however, they were more paid performer, leaving them free to comment on current events.

“La Bamba”, or what ever the ballad may have been known as in the 1680s, told the story of the sack of Vera Cruz and mocked the town’s lack of preparation for the onslaught of the French and Dutch buccaneers. There is even a hint that the surviving lyric about the singer not being a sailor (buccaneer) but a captain (Spanish soldier) was an indignant reference to Vera Cruz natives joining the rampaging enemy to save their skins. “I am not part of that marine rabble,” the singer says proudly. “I am a soldier of Spain.”

Click here to listen to Ritchie Valens’ rock and roll version of “La Bamba”. It’s like a puzzle made up of pieces of our collective past that you can dance to.

Header: Contemporary engraving of Vera Cruz c 1710


Undine said...

Seriously, I can't wait to tell one of my aunts about this post! She's had a passion for "La Bamba" ever since it first came out when she was a kid (I literally grew up hearing that song,) and for as long as I can remember, we've both puzzled over that line.

Strange how such a joyous-sounding song can evolve out of such grim circumstances.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Undine! I remember seeing folklorico dancers perform the dance at Alvara Street in L.A. and asking my Spanish speaking friends about the lyrics. It wasn't until I started researching Nicholas Van Horn that I found a paragraph mentioning the relationship between the song and the piratical events at Vera Cruz in a book by Benerson Little. A little more digging led to a "eureka!" moment, and this post.

As I'm sure you'll agree, this is why history is so exciting to geeks like us.

Blue Lou Logan said...

Ahoy, Pauline. I have heard (and have inches away on my iPod) the traditional 'son jarocho' rendition of "La Bamba." (I am the ethnomusicologist pirate. No, seriously.) The 'son' tradition is one where lyrics evolve constantly, as its an improvisatory lyrical form that adapts to modern news and topics. I always interpreted the "yo no soy marinero" line as a boast--I'm not some limey deckhand, I'm the boss! Fascinating to think it may have more specific historical roots. Great sleuthing...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Lou and gracias, amigo! The added info helps the overall picture of the evolution from tragic story to, as Undine points out, joyful music. I appreciate it a bunch.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Nicely done.

Slightly off topic, but another great song about Veracruz (the place, not this particular event in history) is the song "Veracruz" by the late, great Warren Zevon and Jorge Calderon from Zevon's classic "Excitable Boy" album. The song is about the United States occupation of Veracruz, which began with the Battle of Veracruz in 1914 (during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920).

Veracruz Lyrics:
I heard Woodrow Wilson's guns
I heard Maria crying
Late last night I heard the news
That Veracruz was dying
Veracruz was dying

Someone called Maria's name
I swear it was my father's voice
Saying, "If you stay you'll all be slain
You must leave now - you have no choice
Take the servants and ride west
Keep the child close to your chest
When the American troops withdraw
Let Zapata take the rest"

I heard Woodrow Wilson's guns
I heard Maria calling
Saying, "Veracruz is dying
And Cuernavaca's falling"

Aquel dia yo jure (On that day I swore
Hacia el puerto volvere To the port I will return
Aunque el destino cambio mi vida Even though destiny changed my life
En morire In I shall die
Aquel dia yo jure On that day I swore)

I heard Woodrow Wilson's guns
I heard them in the harbor
Saying, "Veracruz is dying"

There's more information about this at the following Wikipedia link:

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Super bonus song, people! Thank you, piratical musician Warren Zevon.

Anonymous said...

Ahoy,Pauline!You will find every detail about almost every line of this song in the book TORTUGA by Valerio Evangelisti.