I have preparing some extra material for students as they study from home. In the past, I have started some classes with a song and link it to that day’s topic. In the absence of this I have compiled some of the songs and in my earnestness to add value and being some pedagogy into the mix, I found myself looking at versions of ‘La Bamba’. This brought me to its origins. The earliest recording I listened to is from 1939 and the most recent from 2014, which says much about its enduring appeal and its mutability.
As I read up about the song words that recur are adaptation and origins. Adaptation is a term that I explore in one the chapters of my book about the different versions of Los de abajo as book and film. When thinking about this song, versions and re-versioning are better terms than adaptation because it gets away from a hierarchical sense of source text and the purity of an original source and thinks through the wider contexts and codification that takes place when recording a new version. This is particularly pertinent when thinking about folk and popular music that circulate among and across communities. Here is what I found in what was a pleasurable dive into recent musical versions and re-versioning.
These versions of the well-known song, ‘La Bamba’ vary according to who recorded them and when they were recorded. What becomes clear on listening to these versions is that what may seem like a light and airy rock ‘n’ roll song has been an act of resistance and an assertion of belonging and identity.
Ritchie Valens, a significant figure in Chicano rock (alongside Lalo Guerrero), released ‘La Bamba’ in 1958. It was a big hit. His version is a 1950s US-style rock adaptation of a Mexican traditional musical song written in the Son Jarocho style. This makes it a melding of multiple influences from Spanish, indigenous, African styles with the melting pot that is rock ‘n’ roll, that is, a mix of Scottish and Irish traditional music and the African inflected musical genres that emerged from black musicians in the deep south of the US, in particular, blues..
Los Lobos released this version in 1987 to coincide with the release of the biography of Ritchie Valens, La Bamba (Luis Valdez, 1987). It was a major world-wide hit. Listen to the guitar picking towards the end of the song. That is an homage to the Son Jarocho style. Note, also, the different size guitars the musicians play. Again, these are guitars that are widely used in Mexican music.
This brings me to the East Los Angeles version of ‘La Bamba’ here by Las Cafeteras called ‘La Bamba Rebelde’. It draws on the original Mexican folk version, the subsequent Valens and Los Lobos versions and adds extra elements in the lyrics. It is also polyphonic, that is, it does not rely on one singer. Instead it gives prominence to several different voices. This gives it the effect of being a song that emerges from a community or group. The style of this version is very driven by recent movements in US folk music that is, in turn, influenced by the folk music supported by the Austin, Texas-based SXSW . See, this interview for some reflections on this emerging style. The polyphonic nature, the lyrics that reference immigrant rights and the Zapatista movements, and the visuals* that celebrate diversity and resistance amongst the self-identified Chicanos of East LA signal a political inflection to this version that is not as explicit in the earlier versions. The first two version are about being seen and asserting a place in US popular culture. ‘La Bamba Rebelde’ is about demanding more than visibility. It is about rights and pride in their distinctive place in a particular city.
This final version is a mix of multiple musicians from Africa and the Americas playing the song that nods to its multiple influences and the re-versioning that has happened with this song. For me, this version speaks (sings) to why adaptation is a poor word choice and weak analytical category when talking about these versions.
*A note on one of the locations, Home Girl Café. Take a look at their site and read more about it in this fascinating book on food culture in the US.