The Meaning of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba”

Ritchie Valens in 1958. Photo by Michael Ochs.

In 1958, at the age of 16, Ritchie Valens released a cover of the Mexican folk song “La Bamba” that became one of the top rock and roll hits of the 50s. Valens sadly died in a plane crash the following year, the same crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper, which is known as “The Day The Music Died”.

Nearly three decades later, in 1987, a biography film about Valens was released called La Bamba, featuring Lou Diamond Phillips playing the lead role. The film tells the story of Valens’ short life and his impact on the music industry.

The film also includes another version of “La Bamba” by Los Lobos, who also played all other Ritchie Valens songs featured in the film. This version is mostly likely to be the one you’ve heard, as it was a smash success and is still the most popular recording of the song today.

The Los Lobos version of “La Bamba” became a Number One hit in the United States in the summer of 1988, becoming the first song sung entirely in Spanish to do so. It was all over the radio, and many Americans young and old found themselves singing and dancing along to the catchy tune, with no idea about the meaning of the lyrics.

While there is not an official translation of the phrase “La Bamba” into English, La Bamba is simply the name of the dance. The song’s lyrics are simply about moving around and having a good time, and dancing The Bamba with a bit of grace.

As mentioned earlier, “La Bamba” is not a Ritchie Valens original but rather a Mexican folk song dating back as far as the 1830s with the people of Veracruz. The first-ever recorded version of “La Bamba” was in 1939 by Alvaro Hernández Ortiz, or El Jarocho, and it has been recorded by many artists since then.

“La Bamba” is often sung at parties and weddings in Mexico as a means of celebration, and the people are known to change the lyrics in order to personalize them for the occasion that they are celebrating.

See an English translation of the lyrics to “La Bamba” below.

To dance the Bamba,
to dance the Bamba,
one needs a bit of grace.
A bit of grace for me, for you,
now come on, come on,
now come on, come on,
for you I’ll be, for you I’ll be, for you I’ll be.

I’m not a sailor,
I’m not a sailor, I’m a captain.
I’m a captain, I’m a captain.

Bamba, bamba,
bamba, bamba,
bamba, bamba, bam…

To dance the Bamba,
to dance the Bamba,
one needs a bit of grace.
A bit of grace for me, for you,
now come on, come on.

Rrrraa-ha-haa…

(repeat)

English translation of “La Bamba”

Listen to versions of the song by El Jarocho, Ritchie Valens, and Los Lobos below.

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