The Music of Veracruz
The Story of La Bamba

Photos and Text by John Todd, Jr.

En Español

Un Libro Nuevo
A Song that Started in 1683
I love the music and dances of Mexico, especially those of Veracruz.

One of my favorites is the song and dance of La Bamba. (Click here to hear the Ritchie Valens version as a .wav file.)

There are many stories about the origins of the song, but this is what I´ve heard from the people who live here in Veracruz.

A New Project
Early last year, a publishing company approached me with the idea of publishing a series of books about Veracruz.

Our first project was Chucho el Roto: The Legend of a Mexican Bandit which came out in April of 2006.

The book was well recieved, and our project for early 2007 is now the Story of La Bamba: A Song from Veracruz.




La Bruja
The Sounds of The South
The sound of the harp and jarana of Veracruz is the background and the white vestidos and the 7 gold coined necklaces of the jarochas are like the delicate butterflies in Spring.

She is a beautiful woman with black hair laced in colorful ribbons, whose shy eyes welcome you home to Veracruz.

The music is of the green tropical jungles, and dark wide rivers, and palm trees swaying in the Gulf breeze.


La Bruja


La Bruja


Jaraneros at Cempoala




Dances at Cempoala


Dances at Cempoala
Dance Groups
There are groups of dancers all over Mexico.

It´s even popular at the pyramids in Cempoala.

Mexican music is good. It lifts the heart and makes you want to come home again.

A Jarocha with a Candle
La Bamba
When I first heard Ritchie Valens version of "La Bamba", I didn´t know Spanish and had no idea of the meaning of the words.

When I found what the words meant, I still didn´t know what they were talking about.

..."Yo no soy marinero,
Yo no soy marinero,
Soy Capitán,
Soy Capitán"...

What could that mean? I am not a sailor, I am a Captain.

Maybe it had something to do with shrimp boats. I didn´t know.I went along with it anyway, because I liked the music.

One day, I had an interesting conversation with a friend who works at the State Archives in Veracruz.

He told me the true story of the origin of La Bamba.
Quiahuiztlán and Villa Rica
500 Years and 3 Places Called "Veracruz"
The man told me that it all began in the year 1519, when the town of Veracruz was officially founded by Hernan Cortes in a place near Laguna Verde known as El Cerro de los Metates, or Quiahuiztlán.

The Change to Antigua
In 1523, because of the danger of the "nortes" or severe cold fronts with high winds that lash the Gulf of Mexico in the winter time, the port of Veracruz was changed to a more larger and more protected area.

For almost 80 years this place known as la Antigua Veracruz was the main port of commerce in those years.
San Juan de Ulua
Later a Change to San Juan de Ulua
In 1599, because of the frequent floods, they had to change the location of the port of Veracruz to the island of San Juan de Ulua.

On the island they built an armed fort to protect the huge quantities of gold and silver that was being exported home to the mother country.

As time went on, people began to populate the area on the beach in front of the fort to become what is today the urban zone of Veracruz and Boca del Río.

The Pirates of the Caribbean
Because of the strong defenses at San Juan de Ulua, there was only one incident in which pirates approached the fort in almost 200 years.

That event was almost by accident when John Hawkins and Francis Drake arrived after a storm to make repairs. Later they had to flee for their lives.
Veracruz Undefended in 1615
La Bamba and a Pirate Raid
Many popular songs of Public Domain are composed because of a special event.

Often, with the passage of time, the original event is forgotten.That was the case of La Bamba.

Lorenz de Graaf´s Raid
From 1600 until 1683, life went on casually in Veracruz.

While the fort of San Juan de Ulua was safe, but the little town of 5,000 was relatively unprotected from a pirate attack.
The Downtown Church of the Asunción
Herded into the Church
In May of 1683, Lorenz de Graaf, a Dutch pirate, locally known as "Lorencillo" took over the town at night.

He and his multinational gang, along with John Russell, and herded all the townspeople into the church.

He held them there for 3 and a half days while he and his band of men did what they wished and sacked the town.

May is one of the hottest months of the year, and with no food and water, many chose to leap to their deaths from the roof of the church.
Fort Santiago Started in 1683
Most People Wanted to Go Home
When the pirates finished sacking Veracruz, they took 30 of the prettiest girls and left them on the Isla de los Sacrificios, and went back to his lair in the Laguna de Terminos, which is near Cd. del Carmen, Campeche.

The girls were there for another 5 days without food or water before help finally arrived.

The lack of safety from pirates for the civilians shook the entire Colonial Empire of Spain because the people were defenseless.

Most people wanted to leave the colonies and go back home to Spain. and the King was forced to pay for a wall to be built around Veracruz.
Fort Santiago Started in 1683
A New Civil Defense System
There wasn´t much of an army, and most of the young men were forceably conscripted into the new army to defend the port.

A sort of civil defense system was organized throughout the area with alarm bells, and defense drills.

The people in town thought the efforts by the local authorities were useless and foolish, and soon a song began to circulate through the streets of Veracruz.

It was a satirical song called La Bamba that made people laugh at the reality of the situation, especially at the useless activities of the pompous local officials to prevent the next pirate raid which they knew would never come.
Veracruz: A Walled City
Bamba comes from the word Bambarria, that refers to efforts made to prevent something, but after it has happened.

Possibly it refers to the "Mbambos", a tribe from the Congo of Africa where many of the black slaves came from. We still don´t know the origin of towns with African names near Veracruz.

It is believed that the song's name was applied as a clear statement to the authorities of Veracruz eagerly working on the defense of the port, when it no longer was in danger.

The Original Lyrics
Many of the original lyrics to the song La Bamba still exist to this day, only people don´t remember the original meaning.
19th Century Veracruz

Here are some of the verses:

Pompous Officials
Para bailar la bamba //To Dance La Bamba
Para bailar la bamba // To Dance La Bamba
se necesita//You Need
Una poca de gracia // A certain amount of gracefulness
Una poca de gracia // A certain amount of gracefulness
y otra cosita // And Something Else
Ay arriba y arriba
Y arriba y arriba, arriba iré
Two Ladders
Two Ladders to Go to Heaven
This verse was puzzling:

Para subir al cielo // to go up to heaven
Para subir al cielo // to go up to heaven
Se necesita // you need
Una escalera grande // a big ladder
Una escalera grande // a big ladder
Y otra chiquita // and another small one
Ay arriba y arriba // and up and up
Y arriba y arriba, // and up and up
Arriba iré // I will go

Later in looking at some photos of the downtown church where the townspeople had been held captive in the heat without food for 3 days, I remembered reading that some of the wealthy paid to climb on the roof in order to throw themselves onto the street below.

To do this, it would have taken a long ladder to climb to the roof, and a short one to climb to the top. If you had lived back in those days, you would have understood the full extent of the suffering of the people.
An Old Sailing Ship
Against the Draft into the Navy
In this verse were probably the words of a coastal youth when questioned by the local draft board.

In those days, nobody in his right mind wanted to be a sailor to go to sea in search for pirates.

Yo no soy marinero // I am not a Sailor
Yo no soy marinero // I am not a Sailor
Soy Capitán // I am a Captain (in the Army)
Soy Capitán // I am a Captain (in the Army)

The Boy Relents
Perhaps after a show of force by the recruitment officer, the boy relents in his efforts to resist the draft:

Pero por tí seré, // But for you I will be (one)
Por tí seré,// But for you I will be (one)
Por tí seré.// But for you I will be (one)
The Bells of Medellín de Bravo
The little town of Medellín was founded in 1523, the same year as Veracruz.The famous conquistador Hernán Cortes once lived there.

It is safely located just up the Jamapa river from Boca del Río.After Independence in 1810, the "de Bravo" was added to the name.

In the early years, Medellín must have been an important little town, and the flurry of the pirate attack preparations called La Bamba must have felt there, too.

Ay tilín, tilín, tilín , tilín // ring, ring, ring
Tilín, tilín que repiquen campanas // ring ring, ring, may the bells ring
repiquen campanas de Medellin // may the bells of Medellin ring
de Medellin, de Medellin // of Medellin, of Medellin
The Chorus
Then the Chorus repeats:

Bamba, bamba, bamba!
Bamba, bamba, bamba!
Bamba, bamba, bamba!

From the lyrics, you could see the people were tired of the whole thing.

But like most unpleasant things in Veracruz, the people will find a way to somehow enjoy the situation.
Una Jarocha
Tired of the "Defense" Drills
From the lyrics, it looked like the people were tired of the defense drills and wanted them to stop:

Ay te pido, te pido! // Oh, I ask, Oh, I ask
¡Ay te pido, te pido por compasión // Oh, I ask, Oh, I ask out of compassion
que se acabe la bamba! // that the bamba be finished
¡Que se acabe la bamba y venga otro son! // that the bamba be finished and start another song
Y arriba y arriba, // and hurrah and hurrah
¡Ay! arriba y arriba y arriba iré, // and hurrah and hurrah, and up I will go

yo no soy marinero // I am not a sailor
yo no soy marinero, por ti seré, // I am not a sailor, but for you I will be one
por ti seré, por ti seré. // for you I will be one, for you I will be one

With all the good looking Jarochas, it was easy to understand why nobody wanted to serve in the militia.
Las Jarochas
The Wall Brought Security
The walled city of Veracruz brought safety from pirates for another century or so, but in spite of the wall, Veracruz was eventually occupied by foreign troops.

The French in 1838, the US in 1847; and the French again in 1862, and the US again in 1914.

And in each case, the people of Veracruz serenaded them with new versions of La Bamba, which to foreign ears that didn´t know Spanish, must have sounded like a quaint folk dance.

In reality, it became a song against the troops occupying Veracruz.
Graduation from Kindergarten
Traditions in Veracruz
The invasions of the past are forgotten, and each year around graduation, classes dress up and come to the Baluarte Santiago to have their pictures taken.

Over morning coffee across the street from the Baluarte Santiago each morning, I can remember Ritchie Valens version of a song about an event that happened 300 years ago.

Many people who sing La Bamba and aren´t aware of where it came from.

Almost Time for Lunch
A couple of blocks away is the Veracruz Fish Market.

It´s almost time for lunch, and maybe I´ll go over and have a small shrimp cocktail. Just a small one.
Part of the Seafood Buffet
And afterwards, maybe stop by the newly remodeled Naval Museum and look at the new exhibits and talk to some friends there.Maybe they would have some more information about how La Bamba originated.

Then I noticed it was Friday, and the restaurant was getting ready for their seafood lunch buffet.

By the time I get back from the Naval Museum, they should be finished with the preparations and I´ll have more of an appetite.The pico de gallo sauce looked especially good, and I wondered if I had the time.

For a moment, I paused and thought to myself, after all, I´m still "on vacation", and will be in Veracruz a few more days. Later, I came back and found the pico de gallo was as good as it looked.

I could never say "No" to a good shrimp cocktail with pico de gallo sauce on the side.

Clues about the Title "La Bamba"
After further research about the origins of the name "La Bamba" and "Bambarria", there are several clues regarding where the name came from.It is only logical that it refers to some special event that occurred before the year 1683, when the pirates attacked the village of Veracruz.

The clues referring to "Bamba", have led me to a place called the Bamba River in Africa, and the Bamba tribe. This is obvious.

When Did the Event Happen?
Trying to establish a date for the event of the Bambarria, is the next task and the period from 1600 to about 1630 is suspect. During this period there were a number of uprisings by slaves and Indians because of the wretched working conditions especially in the mines, and on the planations in early New Spain. (It wasn't called Mexico until after Independence was declared 200 years later in 1810.) The old history books also mention other uprisings in those days, but they aren't well documented in the official history of the times.

Events surrounding these uprisings are the "Yanga Event" of 1609-1618 and the "Conspiracy of 1612" (also documented in the Yanga story).

Who was Involved in the Event?
Obviously it was people from the Bambo Tribe who once lived along the Bamba River in Africa and the Spanish officials in New Spain.

Was there a Man Named "Bamba" or "Bambo"?
I have read that the slaves were baptized before they made their ardous journey across the Atlantic.

As in the case of Gaspar Yanga, perhaps there was a "José Bamba" who has been lost in history. Slaves were typically given a last name that referred to their tribe of origin, then a Christian name when they were baptized.

More Research Needed
At this point, research needs to be focused on the old Spanish immigration records which can probably be found in the Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain.

It shouldn't be difficult to find this information in the tax records of the slaves brought into New Spain from 1550 to about 1630. There also may be notations as to where they were sent. To trace the migrations of the Bambos in Mexico during this time period might be an interesting research project for a graduate student looking for a project. Or maybe I can find the time to go to Seville, Spain on my own and do the research myself.

Or could the origens of the song distantly be related to the Yanga Event?Once this information is pieced together, the mystery of La Bamba can be solved.

In the meantime, I think I´ll go down to the Zócalo in Veracruz tonight. Maybe I´ll hear the special harps and jaranas of Veracruz play another version of my favorite song La Bamba.

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