BLACK HISTORY MONTH: “LA BAMBA” AND ITS AFRICAN ROOTS

I came in from work today to see my next-door-neighbors (Mexican Americans) having a get-together, with company over. They were barbequing, and playing music. At the home, was a group playing the song La Bamba. As I listened to the song, I wondered. . . .
How many of them sitting around jammin’ to that song knew of its true origins? How would they respond if I was to tell them the history behind La Bamba?
 
La Bamba.
 
When you hear the song La Bamba, what image comes to mind? A Mexican singer, or a Black singer? When you question what the words mean, do you envision black people from Mexico, or do you envision brown people, from Mexico singing the song? If you are like most people, you think of Ritchie Valens who made the song very popular in the 1950s before he died tragically in a plane crash, or you may even think of Los Lobos’ version, but, you would not be able to conceive of a Black singer serenading their listeners to the lilting cadences of La Bamba.
 
If you are like most people, you have never thought of La Bamba with an African/Black connection, but, it does have an African origin, and the song owes its creation to enslaved Africans.
 
 
The song ‘La Bamba’, a traditional folk song and dance, was originally a song sung by African slaves in Veracruz as they worked, since many of the enslaves brought to Mexico by the Spaniards, came from Angola and Congo, with the Africans who originated the song hailing from the MBamba peoples of Angola. Bamba is the name of an African tribe in Angola and in Congo, from the Bamba River, where the  MBamba peoples lived. As enslaves, they brought their beautiful culture with them, and the original origins of this song, over 500 years ago, and as so very often, with enslaved Africans in the new world, they fought against enslavement, running away and joining up with the indigenous peoples in the rain forests and mountainous areas. The song also refers to a specific incident which occurred in the year 1683, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, when  pirates attacked the people, free and enslaved, living there. The Spanish officials of Veracruz mistreated the enslaves so horribly that they rebelled in what was known as the “Bambarria”, an enslave uprising that pitted the African enslaves and Indians against the Spanish. (New Spain as it was called, because at the time, the country we now know as Mexico, did not exist as a nation, until approximately 200 years later, when in 1810, Mexico/New Spain gained its independence from Spain).
 
 
Influenced by Afro-Mexican and Spanish flamenco rhythms, the song uses the violin, jaranas, guitar, and harp. Lyrics to the song greatly vary, as performers often improvise verses while performing La Bamba which is a folk song whose origins can be traced to the Mexican state of Veracruz over 300 years ago. It is best known from a 1958 adaptation by Ritchie Valens, a top 40 hit in the the U.S. charts and one of early rock and roll’s best-known songs. (The Los Lobos variation is my favourite, because it stays more faithfully with the origins of the original song where they speed up the song’s ending.) The name of the dance, which has no direct English translation, is presumably connected with the Spanish verb, bambolear meaning “to shake”, or perhaps “to stomp”.
 
“The traditional “La Bamba” was often played during weddings in Veracruz, where the bride and groom performed the accompanying dance. Today this wedding tradition is mostly lost, but the dance survives through the popularity of ballet folklórico. The dance is performed in much the same way, displaying the newlywed couple’s unity through the performance of complicated, delicate steps in unison as well as through creation of a bow from a listón, a long red ribbon, using only their feet.
 
“The “arriba” (literally “up”) part of the song suggests the nature of the dance, in which the footwork, called “zapateado“, is done faster and faster as the music tempo accelerates. The repeated lyric, “Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán” (lit: “I am not a sailor, I am a captain”), refers to Veracruz’s marine locale and the husband’s promise that he will remain faithful to his wife.”  SOURCE:   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Bamba_(song)
 
The African influence in Mexico, and the rest of this hemisphere for that matter, encompasses all of this hemisphere, from jazz, to blues, to gospel, to rhythm & blues, to the syncopated beat that still permeates much of American music, a beat that comes from African slaves in America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
 
 
Syncopation is a major component of contemporary American music. Syncopation was at one time practically unheard of in the mainstream United States, except among Black Americans. Syncopation refers to placing the stress on a beat that is normally unstressed. There are several ways to create syncopated rhythms, by stressing, quickening, or skipping certain beats in a measure.
 
Rumba, habanera, Argentine tango, bolero, merengue, cumbia, salsa, and even the mambo that was so popular in the States during the 1950s and 1960s all have roots in African (and Latin) traditions.
 
Here, Bobby Vaughn, the maestro of Afro-Mexican culture, discusses the African influence on Mexican music and the rest of Latin America as well:
 
 
“VERACRUZ AND THE SON JAROCHO
Perhaps the music that best personifies the culture of Veracruz is the son jarocho.2 Jarocho is the moniker by which most Veracruzanos identify their regional identity, regardless of their race. But the word’s origins have everything to do with Blackness. In the colonial era, the word was used to refer to Blacks of mixed race (Aguirre Beltrán 1989 [1946]):169), and or to Blacks in general. The son jarocho is a musical genera that has strong African elements, as well as a lyrical structure that suggests its European heritage. It is a festive genre in which the center of attention is the pairs of male and female dancers who dance atop a wood platform. Their rhythmic stamping provides the percussion to accompany the strumming of the all-important jarana, which is a smaller cousin of the guitar.
 
“The most curious of the instruments is one that is almost certainly of African origin: the marimbol3.
Marimbula player.jpg
MARIMBOL (also known as  marimbula/rhumba box; manimba; malimba; marimbol; bass box/calimba; church & clap; jazz jim and box lamellophone): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mar%C3%ADmbula
“The marimbol is a wood box with a round sound hole cut in the center of it. Across this hole, a number of metal strips are attached. These metal strips are tuned to different pitches, and are plucked to produce a deep basslike sound. The marimbol provides a driving bassline for the music. The vocals are often a series of repeating verses sung by two male or female soloists, one responding to the other. A kind of melodic shouting in falsetto creates a curious vocal timbre. The themes are generally lighthearted love longs, and are often quite comical. The popular song “La Bamba” is a traditional son jarocho. I have found historical evidence of the son jarocho being danced as early as 1816 by blacks in Veracruz, where the observer describes a large dance contest of men and women. (“Todos negros atezados y una y uno de ellos bailando un zapateado sin moverse de un lugar/all of them darkskinned Blacks and each of them dancing a tap-dance without moving from their spot.) (Poblett Miranda and Delgado 1992:v.2, 209).”
 
“The son jarocho is not simply a relic from the past, preserved by the older generations, however. There are countless performers throughout the central and southern parts of the state. In addition to Afro-Mexican towns, like El Coyolillo, and mestizo towns, like Tlacotalpan, the son jarocho is also performed in indigenous communities in indigenous languages. Thus, the son jarocho is an example of the confluence of cultures in Veracruz, where the son, in spite of being a product of different heritages or perhaps precisely because of this is embraced by nearly all Veracruzanos as an important part of their jarocho identity.
 
“DIABLOS IN THE COSTA CHICA
In the Costa Chica, one of the regional dances that is most associated with the negros is the danza de los diablos [dance of the devils]. While the dance is performed in any number of Afro-Mexican towns in the region, the town of Collantes is most renown for its performance of it. In Collantes, the energetic dance is performed during Todos Santos [All Saints' Day] celebrations in November, and the group of about 20 male dancers and 3 musicians wander through the streets, stopping to dance in front of homes that wish to give them a small ofrenda of money, or food. In contrast to Veracruz’s son jarocho, the danza de los diablos is not a couple’s dance, but is a performance in which all participants wear elaborate masks. The basic elements of the dance have 3 rows of dancers, all dressed alike, executing a syncopated stomping, all in unison, while the terrón, also called the diablo mayor, whips the dancers and otherwise intimidates them. In addition to the terrón, there is the dancer called la minga, who is always a male dancer dressed as a woman in a long dress. La Minga is the terrón’s wife, and flirts with the dancers in order to get them into more trouble with her husband. There is a slapstick quality to the dance, and the terrón will often go after children in the audience to further excite the laughing crowd.
 
“The instruments used in the danza de los diablos are typically a harmonica, a jicada, or a cow’s jawbone, whose teeth are raked with a stick to keep rhythm, and a peculiar instrument called an arcusa. The arcusa is a large hollow gourd with a thin waxed stick fastened to the mouth. As the musician strokes the stick, a low grunting sound is produced. The dance’s origins appear to be in part of African origin, and it is speculated that in the colonial era it was overtly part of an African cult to the god Ruja. While no mention of Ruja or religious cults exists in the way the dance is performed today, it certainly dramatizes the more recent historical conflicts between Black workers and cruel overseers. While the son jarocho is danced by Veracruzanos irrespective of ethnic heritage, the danza de los diablos is not performed, neither in indigenous, nor in mestizo communities, but is essentially an Afro-Mexican tradition.
 
“A Costa Chica dance that is performed by Afro-Mexicans and mestizos alike is the chilena.4 The chilena, as its name suggests, was introduced to the coast by Chilean sailors in the mid 19th century. These sailors were most likely on their way to the California coast during the gold rush, and stopped for a time in Acapulco. There, they taught their music and dance, the cueca, to the Black dockhands, who spread their interpretation of it throughout the Costa Chica. The chilena is now considered the singlemost characteristic artform of the Costa Chica.” (1)
AFRICAN MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS:
 
 
 
TrebleKalimba.jpg
KALIMBA (modernized version of the mbira):  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalimba
Unlike string instruments or flutes, which were widespread around the world, the kalimba family of instruments is uniquely African.
 
 
 
Mbira1.png
MBIRA (THUMB PIANO): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mbira
 Dr. Joseph H. Howard, owner of the largest collection of drums and ancillary folk instruments in the Americas, often stated it is “the instrument most typical of Africa.” By this he meant that the instruments were only found in areas populated by Africans or their descendants. Babatunde Olatunji made a similar statement in his book “Musical Instruments of Africa.” He states the mbira “a finger xylophone, is native to Africa and is common throughout the continent. It is known nowhere else except in parts of the Americas where it was taken by Africans.”
 
Mbira dzavadzimu in deze.jpg
MBIRA DZAVADZIM IN A DEZE
 
 
 
 
Much of the original essence of La Bamba have been lost to time, but, the liveliness, the joy of life of La Bamba still remains. Here are the lyrics (Spanish, with English traslation, that many people of today are familiar with:
 
 
 
Para bailar La Bamba
Para bailar La Bamba
Se necessita una poca de gracia
Una poca de gracia
Para mi, para ti, ay arriba, ay arriba
Ay, arriba arriba
Por ti sere, por ti sere, por ti sere

Yo no soy marinero
Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan
Soy capitan, soy capitan
Bamba, bamba
Bamba, bamba
Bamba, bamba, bam

Para bailar La Bamba
Para bailar La Bamba
Se necessita una poca de gracia
Una poca de gracia
Para mi, para ti, ay arriba, ay arriba

(Guitar solo – instrumental)

Para bailar La Bamba
Para bailar La Bamba
Se necessita una poca de gracia
Una poca de gracia
Para mi, para ti, ay arriba, ay arriba
Ay, arriba arriba
Por ti sere, por ti sere, por ti sere

Bamba, bamba
Bamba, bamba
FADES-
Bamba, bamba.

English translation:

In order to dance The Bamba
In order to dance the Bamba
You need a little bit of grace
A little bit of grace
For me, for you, ah up, ah up(or higher and higher)
Ah, up, up (literally “faster, faster”)
By you I will be, by you I will be, by you I will be
(Por can also mean by and not just for)

I am not a sailor,
I am not a sailor, I am a captain
I am a captain, I am a captain
Bamba, bamba
Bamba, bamba
Bamba, bamba, bam

In order To dance The Bamba
In order To dance The Bamba
You need a little bit of grace
A little bit of grace
For me, for you, ah up, ah up (higher and higher)

(Guitar only – and set of instruments)

In order to dance The Bamba
In order to dance The Bamba
You need a little bit of grace
A little bit of grace
For me, for you, ah up, ah up
Ah, up, up.
For you I will be, for you I will be, for you I will be
Bamba, bamba
Bamba, bamba
FADES-
Bamba, bamba.

(Repeats)

 
So. . . .
 
. . . .the next time you hear the song La Bamba, take time to pause and thank the black enslaved people of Mexico for giving us the gift of this song. If not for their contributions to the music of Latin America, with the additions of Indigenous and Europeans influence thrown in, we would not have such a lovely and delightful song to sing, and dance to.
 
LOS LOBOS, “LA BAMBA”
 
 
 
 
HERE IS LA BAMBA AS DANCED BY BALLET FOLKLORICO PASA DEL NORTE:
 
REFERENCES/LINKS:

 

 
(1) “MEXICO IN THE CONTEXT OF THE TRANSATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE”, By BOBBY VAUGHN:   http://www.blackelectorate.com/articles.asp?ID=1373
  
UNHCR – REFWORLD: “WORLD DIRECTORY OF MINORITIES AND INDIGENOUS PEOPLE – MEXICO: AFRO-MEXICANS”: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/topic,463af2212,49709c232,49749ce5c,0.html
  
“SE HABLA ESPANOL (TAMBIEN SE CANTA, SE BAILA, Y SE ESCRIBE), By Alexander J. Reyes:  http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/2006/2/06.02.06.x.html
  
LA BAMBA: CANCION DE VERACUZ:  “A SONG THAT STARTED IN 1683″:  http://www.johntoddjr.com/143%20Bamba/bamba.htm
  
  
OTHER RELATED LINKS:
 
  
 
 
 
“FIRST LOOK INSIDE (KALIMBA VIDEO):
WEBSITE ON KALIMBA MUSIC: http://www.kalimbamagic.com
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13 Comments

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13 responses to “BLACK HISTORY MONTH: “LA BAMBA” AND ITS AFRICAN ROOTS

  1. Michelle

    Good Try but La Bamba is actually influenced by Spanish Flamenco, and it has no roots in Africa, all of that is false history.

    • Ann

      How do you explain La Bamba‘s son jarocho influence?

    • Vidal

      Hello Michelle,
      I don’t know you but I know of your kind…… There are many Mexicans (when I say Mexicans I’m not talking about the Germans, Italians or any other Europeans that ran to Mexico for any war crimes they may have commited in their own country ) I’m talking about a recognizable TRUE MEXICAN….. One that (when I look in his or her direction, I KNOW THAT’S A MEJICANO kind of Mexican) We, are of three different bloods, Indigenous, African and spaniard….. In my family we have tan, brown, dark brown to almost black skin…. wavy to curly to coculuste (kinky) hair. My mother told me the reason some of us have very dark brown almost black skin with coculuste (kinky hair) is because we have great and great great grandparents that were Indian and Black Mejicanos ( Not to be confused with black Americans) She said when she was a little girl she remembers her greatgrandfather ( he was very very dark and had cucoluste (kinky hair)… She said he never thought anything of it and it wasn’t until she came to this country that she was exposed to prejudice…. Here, in this country being dark was a bad thing but in Mexico dark children in a family were affectionately called negritos or negritas. My grandfather called my grandmother negrita…… Yes, I know that here in this country there are many American born Mexicans that will deny until the day they die that anyone in their family is/was a black Mexican but I am here to tell you that people in my family don’t deny it. We don’t lay claim to any African American roots (because we aren’t African American) but we do recognize our own part of Afro Mejicano blood. If you (I don’t even know if you’re a Latina) or any other person of Mexican Heritage can look at pictures of the GREAT EMILIANO ZAPATA, or the first black president of North America ( VICENTE GUERRERO) yes, Vicente guerrero was THE FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT of NORTH AMERICA and he was Mexican (elected president of Mexico in 1829) and soon after abolished slavery in Mexico. Why would it be necessary to abolish slavery in Mexico if slavery never existed? I think you should start reading TRUE HISTORY… Not the history books written by the spaniards who rule Mexico. Oh yeah! All those government officials of Mexico DO NOT LOOK LIKE THE MAJORITY OF MEXICO’S POPULATION. Yes there are a couple tanned or brown people who serve Mexico but the ruling class really hasn’t changed much since colonial Mexico and after the left over spaniards or peninsulares as they called themselves way back when they called us Jarochos, Zambos and Lobos…. and they murdered Vicente Guerrero!!! Now they conveniently call all of us Mestizos (Indigenous/spanish) even those who til this very day look very much African are forced to call themselves Mestizos…. This covers up the African slave days of Mexico. Yeah, the blood continuosly mixed and mixed again over and over with every parent telling their children to marry someone lighter skinned than themselves so the children don’t suffer,,,,,, That was the rule of the day for colonial Mex. The African slaves who married the Indigenous were guaranteed by the spanish that their children would be born free. So michelle, the guarantee from the spanish was never forgotten and miscegenation continued to hide the African root (physically) but it is still there no matter how much people try to hide it. If your family is from Mexico but most of you look white, that’s probably because you are from a strong spanish bloodline (those who came and took everything from us) or you may have a bloodline that comes from Germany or Italy but I can guarantee you that if this is what your family looks like (white skin, blonde hair, blue eyes) YOU DO NOT LOOK LIKE MEXICO’S MAJORITY BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT PART OF MEXICO’S TRUE BLOODLINE THAT SWEAT, BLED AND DIED FOR THE GREED OF THE CONQUERORS………… PERIOD!!!!!

      • Hi Vidal, I really enjoyed reading your response to Michelle’s naïve comment.

        To know where you’re going you ought to know where you’re from, and there are a lot of ignorant ‘lost’ people. I felt a sense of pride in the pride you have about knowing your family history! We need to hear more ‘accurate’ stories like yours Vidal!

        Thanks again for sharing :)

    • Michelle, when I was studying at UDLAP (in Mexico), our music professor spent a lot of time discussing how La Bamba was influenced by the Afro-mexicanos. Based on what he (a professor) said, this blog is right on target.

  2. Martha Hernandez

    Interesting. I would believe the African influence theory more than the “Spanish Flamenco” one. I want to make sure; so I’ll ask my grandmother. There’s a town in Veracruz named “Yanga” or San Lorenzo de los Negros as it was originally called. That town was founded by black runaway slaves, that’s why it makes more sense to me. It’s my grandmother’s hometown and I’ve been there once. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  3. kiki

    this was very interesting…

  4. Hello Vidal,
    You are brilliant and honorable thank you for speaking and writing the truth.The miseducation of the world regarding the true history of culture and civilization must be conquered, the lies have poisoned the minds of many and as a result their hearts are bitter to the truth. This is primarily the doing of white supremacy doctrine. Thank you for clarifying and supporting the truth about the African roots of Veracruz and the La Bamba.!
    .

  5. Just Jess

    Michelle, what part of La Bamba sounds flamenco to you? Are you familiar with either of these two musical styles sonnes and flamenco? Have you ever been to Veracruz or studied it’s culture? La Bamba may very well be influenced by flamenco, but to deny it’s african’s origin’s it to remain as ignorant as the people that think it was only a rock and roll song.

    Let me guess, you’re not Mexican, you’re Spanish (con un nopal en la frente!)

  6. abruzzi

    thats great!! la bamba and African roots. actually very interesting.

  7. Flo

    Interesting article about the influence of african music onto mexican music. Its true when I listen to mexican music, i am fascinated how its has an african essence in the music and it does touch my heart.

  8. steve

    Interesting! I know the ‘bamba’ people the majority actually live in uganda near congo in bundibugyo district,they play all sorts of instruments.I have been there. Thanks for the info

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