Tuesday, June 10, 2014

La Bamba

Ritchie Valens
Para bailar la bamba
Para bailar la bamba
Se necesita
Una poca de gracia
Una poca de gracia
Y otra cosita

“Dance the Bamba, needing a little grace” (or “humor”)became one of rock and roll’s signature anthems. La Bamba is also one of the oldest Mexican Sones Jarochos, a traditional song form originating in a region that includes southern Veracruz, eastern Oaxaca and north­ern Tabasco. The instrumentation of this traditional Mexican music included violin, bass, harp, tambourine, quijada (the jaw of a donkey) and a tarima (a foot-high platform made of wood for dancers to add percussion to the music with their feet). The roots of the music com­bine from Spain, Africa and the native Aztecs. It is believed that the enslaved Africans in Mexico created the tarimas after being deprived of drums by their captors.

African syncopated rhythms have played an important role in all music of the Western hemisphere. The accenting, anticipating or skipping of certain beats - sometimes emphasizing beats or parts of beats not typically stressed in European music - created a rhythmic syncopation that became the heartbeat and soundtrack of the new world. This new rhythmic approach underpinned the development of South American musical styles such as habanera, bolero, tango, rumba, salsa, mambo, merengue and cumbia in the same way that African rhythmic syncopation was integral in the creation of North American styles such as hoedown, ragtime, blues, country, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and hip-hop.

La Bamba itself harkens to a single event that took place in the port of Veracruz in today’s Mexico. In 1683, the 7,000 inhabitants of Vera­cruz were largely unprotected from pirate attacks even though the nearby San Juan de Ulua fort was substantially fortified. The Dutch pirate Lorenz de Graaf and his multi-national crew raided Veracruz killing many of its Spanish citizens and pillaging the town. After the nightmarish attack was over, many of the remaining Spanish wanted to leave Veracruz compelling the King of Spain to erect a defensive wall around the entire town. The King made it compulsory for young men of the city to serve in the military in order to defend the port, citizens were involved in defensive drills and alarm bells were installed. The term “bambarria” was used by the local native and slave populations to mock the Spanish inhabitants and pompous local officials in their attempts to prevent the next pirate attack. They believed that the attack had been a fluke and would not happen again. One theory links the origin of La Bamba with the bambarria - a song taking voice from the social situation. However, because many towns near Veracruz have African names, La Bamba could have come more directly from African slaves originating from the Mbambo or Bambala tribes in the Congo and Angola regions of Africa.

By the 17th century, the once peaceful relationship between the Portuguese and Africans was disrupted as the European slave trade escalated. In 1647, Salvador Correia of Brazil sent an expedition of fifteen ships to conquer Angola to facilitate the slave trade to South America. He and other Spaniards brought slaves to Mexico from Angola and Congo including those from the Bamba region and the Bambala tribe. In either case it is certain that the origins of La Bamba date back hundreds of years.

Just as English, Irish, German and French immigrants brought the violin to colonial America, the Spanish brought the violin to Central and South America. Much like their North American counterparts, African slaves in Latin America were drawn to play the instrument. Many slaves escaped into the rain forest and mountainous regions to live with indigenous people and became integrated into the folk culture. The violin became inextricably linked to all the traditional music styles created by the cross-pollination of the native and immigrant populations making up North and South American 400-year old culture.

Flamenco rhythms from Spain’s oppressed gypsy populations, became trademarks of what is South American music culture. For hundreds of years, one would hear La Bamba informed by these styles on the violin, jaranas, guitar, and harp with lyrics improvised by the perform­ers. It was in 1958 that an adaptation by Los Angeles Hispanic singer and guitarist Ritchie Valens, made La Bamba one of early rock and roll’s greatest songs.

Born Richard Steven Valenzuela, this teenaged Mexican-American rock and roll pioneer gave birth to Latin or Chicano rock. Richie grew up experiencing his parents’ love of Mariachi and Flamenco music and combined this style with his own affection for R&B and Jump Blues. After penning the million-selling doo-wop styled song “Donna” (written for his high school sweetheart), Ritchie Valens switched gears recalling a Mexican song he grew up listening to in his family home. He added a rock and roll beat and became the first person to use Spanish lyrics in a rock recording. In 1958, the infectious new treatment of the La Bamba shot up into the top 20 of the pop charts.

On February 3rd, 1959 during a rock and roll package tour in the Midwest, a small plane carrying the young stars Buddy Holly, JP (The Big Bopper) Richardson and the teenaged Ritchie Valens crashed leaving no survivors. The loss of these young men sent shock waves around the world and the tragic incident became acknowledged as “the day the music died.” These young rock musicians were just get­ting started in their already meteoric careers - Valens’ own career was a mere eight months old. La Bamba became an anthem for the rebellious rock and roll generation. The anti-establishment sentiment of 1960s America was similar to that of the 1600s in Mexico and defined a national spirit and coming of age. It is not surprising that this music would have been a part of both. The lyrics “yo no soy mainero, soy capitan” or “I am no mere sailor, I am captain!” speak to the American (both North and South) spirit of the common man wanting to take control of his own destiny.

Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos
Valens’ short career inspired the Latin rock movement. In 1987, the Hollywood motion picture La Bamba featured Valens’ life story portrayed by actor Lou Diamond Phillips. The music for the film was provided by the band Los Lobos, one of Valens’ acclaimed Latin rock successors. For the film, the group recorded a version of La Bamba that was intended to imitate Valens’ original classic but somehow miraculously seemed to improve on the original. This new version of La Bamba became another world wide sensation, this time reaching the #1 position on the pop charts in both the U.S. and the U.K. The guitar solo by Los Lobos’ Ceasar Rojas took on the musical ideas and character of the 1958 original solo by session player Carol Kaye, but escalated them to new musical heights. This famous instrumen­tal solo is a wonderful blend of Chicano rock stratocaster guitar and the traditional violin lyricism of Mexico that Los Lobos knew well. In this book’s version, Rojas’ guitar solo is transcribed and adapted to violin without any note changes. The overall violin arrangement was inspired by both Valens and Los Lobos and the inclusion of the violin brings the music full circle to the old Mexican folk tradition that will forever be a part of our collective story.

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