Music Trekking: The History of La Bamba

Let’s Stomp and Shake to… La Bamba!

Who would think that a humble little folksong from the region of Vera Cruz, Mexico would grow up to be a best-loved song all over the world – and even get itself listed as # 345 in Rolling Stone’s Magazine’s List of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Such is the impressive history of a song called “La Bamba”.

Although La Bamba has been recorded by artists such as Harry Belafonte, Los Lobos and even by a Greek Musician named Tzimis Panousis, most people are familiar with the version recorded by Richie Valens in 1958. Surprisingly, although Valens was proud of his Mexican heritage, he spoke no Spanish and had to go to his aunt, Ernestine Reyes, to learn the lyrics of this song phonetically. Other musicians in the band helped add a rock and roll edge to the song and it became a chart-topping success. Years later, both Valens and the song were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for this contribution to popular culture.

But what is “La Bamba”? The name refers to a dance. Most foklorists guess that it comes from the Spanish verb “bambolear” which can be translated to “to shake” or “to stomp,” a perfect title for an active upbeat dance that sometimes got faster and faster as it went on. What about the words? That’s a bit tricky because there is no definitive set of lyrics since many of the verses were improvised. The tune and the chorus were well known in Mexico – especially in Vera Cruz. However, clever singers or deejays would add new verses in order to charm or amuse the crowd. They might sing about how silly your uncle looks in his flowered shirt of how beautiful a young lady appeared as she stepped into the room. Although there are lots of verses, the most popular ones can be heard in most modern versions of the song.

“Yo no soy marinero/I am not a sailor” is one or the verses everyone recognizes. In Spanish, the singer is telling everyone that he is not a sailor – he’s the captain, a verse that would make sense in that area of Mexico known for it’s fishing. Can you make up your own silly or funny verses to this song – of course! If you speak Spanish, add a line or two in that language. If you speak English or another language, try your hand at it as well! The melody is addictive and you may just create the next great version of this popular song.

In my version of La Bamba, I chose to stick with the verses I had heard most often. You can check it out here:


Award-winning children’s performer, DARIA (Daria Marmaluk-Hajioannou) has created 7 cd’s that have won national honors. She has the most awesome job of traveling the world to sing for kids and peace. Her “world music for kids” website,, was given a 2009 Parents Choice Award for its musical and cultural content.  She has also created a multicultural kids video site as well as My Favorite Multicultural Books.

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