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Many of us of Latino/Chicano heritage grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll radio in the late 1950s. As a result, we were delighted, along with the entire country, when the song “La Bamba” hit the airwaves. (You may click here to listen to the song on YouTube.) The singer with the euphonic, captivating voice was Richard Valenzuela, but the world knew him as Ritchie Valens.
Ritchie, a child of Mexican immigrants, was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. He grew up listening to mariachi and Mexican folk music. Ritchie was also a fan of “jump blues” (a precursor to rock ‘n’ roll). Likewise, he musically absorbed the rhythm and blues associated with the African American community. In due course, he accomplished an enormous feat during his transitory journey through our musical landscape. That is, to create La Bamba, he blended purely traditional Mexican music with American rock music. Rock ‘n’ roll’s star was rising. And Ritchie was growing into what appeared to be a promising career.
Here are the topics that we will cover in this article:
Origins of La Bamba
“La Bamba” was not Ritchie’s original song. In fact, it originally hailed from the verdant state of Veracruz. This region is in the tropical forests of southern Mexico. The driving rhythms of its music embedded what is known as the “son jarocho” in La Bamba. What’s more, these sones have very well-defined rhythms that only musicians would understand and appreciate. The rest of us just want to dance to them.
In traditional Mexican folklórico dance, La Bamba is a song with Spanish, African, and Indigenous roots. Consequently, the infinitely complex “zapateado” of the agile men and women with hyper-nimble feet is intricate and swift. A zapateado is something like tap dancing on a dangerous mix of caffeine and steroids. The dance tells the story of a wedding. Indeed, the dancers skillfully use their feet to convert a long red ribbon on the floor into a bow. Then they raise it up with their feet for all to see, symbolizing the couple’s union.
La Bamba: A Hit Song
It was this Veracruzana folk song that inspired Ritchie to create his unique rock ‘n’ roll version of “La Bamba.” Subsequently, it was imprinted on 45-rpm records. It became the first Spanish-language song to attain the No. 1 spot on the American hit charts. It was as if briefly (more accurately, very briefly) Americans wanted to be Mexicans. In fact, I can remember the song playing incessantly, day and night, it seemed, on L.A.’s classic rock stations.
Ritchie’s life was cut short, along with that of rock legend Buddy Holly, in February 1959. They had performed La Bamba and other songs in Clear Lake, Iowa—a long way from the bright lights of Los Angeles. Tragically, their chartered plane took off from a small airport and inexplicably crashed. The pilot and passengers, including Ritchie, age 17, all died instantly.
The Day the Music Died
In 1971, singer Don McLean memorialized the crash in his vintage folk rock song, “American Pie.” The song repeats the phrase “the day the music died.” Surely, these words sadly recall the day that rock ‘n’ roll lost two of its luminaries. On this day, Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly lost their lives. Their musical lights were cruelly and suddenly extinguished forever.
Nonetheless, we still honor the young Ritchie Valens as a “founding father” of Chicano rock music. Chicano rock superstars, such as Santana, Malo, War, and Tierra all followed in Ritchie’s footsteps. Starting with La Bamba, the path that Ritchie forged with his music stretches from Los Angeles to Clear Lake and on to eternity.
The original version of this article appeared in the Ventura County community newsletter, Amigos805, on October 21, 2022. This is an updated version.
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