Thursday, April 7, 2011
History: La Bamba!
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