Veracruz Sunrise over Sontecomapan photo by Scott Valor

Veracruz, La Bamba, and the Meeting of Two Cultures

On a recent trip to Veracruz, we were delighted by the local music, son jarocho, a Caribbean-influenced style of Mexican music akin to an uptempo Cuban salsa.  The melodies provided by the arpa jarocha (a type of harp) and the requinto jarocho and jarana jarocha (two types of regional guitars with various numbers of strings) had us moving in our seats or dancing at all times.

Son Jarochos Veracruz photo by Scott Valor

Son Jarocho musicians and their traditional instruments performing "La Bamba"

Most of the songs were traditional and regional in nature, except for what I thought was their nod to the fact that they were playing to gringos: in every set played, almost everywhere we traveled, the musicians would break into a very rapid version of La Bamba.  The first time I heard it I thought, “What’s next?  Are they going to do an upbeat version of Tequila?”

Nearly everyone recognizes the song La Bamba, which was made a hit in the US by Ritchie Valens (Valenzuela) in 1958.  Not only the title and theme song of a popular film, it is played on all the oldies stations, at weddings, parties, you name it.  It is as part of American culture and pop history as the ’57 Chevy and rock and roll in general.

But, La Bamba isn’t from the US. Its origins are in Veracruz, a mix of African rhythms, Spanish flamenco, and indigenous Mexican influences on the music of the region.  La Bamba is Veracruz.  Some say that this traditional folk song dates back to the late 17th Century and that, for the most part, its lyrics do not translate into English.  Indeed performers often improvise the words depending on the audience or event.

One thing is for sure: La Bamba is where two cultures meet – those of old Veracruz and the modern United States, by a song that they both call their own.

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Scott Valor is a lawyer, surfer, and the author of “The Surfer’s Guide to Mainland Mexico”. Check out his global surf travel blog  at BurningPier.com.