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The Story of La Bamba, the unlikely B-side hit

A Mexican festival scene
A Mexican festival scene

In 1958, U.S. singer, songwriter and guitarist Ritchie Valens released a new single, ‘Donna.’ Written as a tribute to a highshcool sweetheart, it reached number two in the U.S. charts. When looking for a song to go on the B-side of the record, Valens had recorded a cover for a song he had known from his youth. That piece was ‘La Bamba.’ This B-side recording would become the most influential of his career, turning a little-known folksong into a cultural phenomenon.


La Bamba originates from the state of Veracruz, Mexico. It has its roots in the son jarocho style, which incorporated elements of European classical music, traditional music of southern Spain and African Music as carried to the Americas through the slave trade.

‘La Bamba’ (also known as ‘La Bomba’) is a type of dance associated with festive occasions such as weddings and ballet folklóricos. The name likely derived from the Spanish verb ‘bambolear’ meaning to ‘sway’ or ‘shake.’ The original version of "La Bamba" was likely performed using traditional instruments such as the jarana (a small guitar-like instrument), requinto (a smaller guitar), and harp. Performances are typically accompanied by a traditional dance, usually in pristine white garments suggestive of weddings:

Valens’ Version

In making a cover of the song Valens, who was proud of his Mexican heritage, was respectful of the original. He maintained the melody, adding a rock and roll twist to the accompaniment. He also used two of the most commonly used stanzas when choosing the lyrics, forming the familiar chorus:

Para bailar La Bamba
Para bailar La Bamba
Se necesito una poca de gracia
Una poca de gracia
Pa' mi, pa' ti, arriba, y arriba
Y arriba, y arriba
Por ti seré, por ti seré, por ti seré

and verse:

Yo no soy marinero
Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán
Soy capitán, soy capitán
Bamba, bamba
Bamba, bamba
Bamba, bamba, bamba

A B-Side Hit

Valens’ B-side cover soon gained a life of its own. It charted No. 1 in Canada, performing well in a number of other countries. Most significantly, Valens' version popularised what was hitherto a relatively unknown song. This led to many more covers, with the piece eventually becoming one of the most familiar Mexican pieces around the world. In recognition of his contribution, Valens’ version is preserved in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry.


Sadly Valens didn’t live to see the enormous impact of his recording. In 1959, a short time after the release of ‘La Bamba,’ he was killed in a plane crash whilst flying out of Manson City. Also in the plane were fellow musicians Jiles Perry "J.P." Richardson Jr, better known as The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly. The deaths of all three inspired Don McLean’s song ‘American Pie’, in which the accident is referred to as ‘The Day the Music Died.’

Other Versions

Valens’ version of ‘La Bamba’ encouraged others to also make covers of the song. The most well-known of theses is by Los Lobos, released in 1987 for the film ‘La Bamba,’ inspired by the life and death of Valens. This version, closely following Valens’ own, was a huge hit, reaching number one in a number of countries, including the UK, France and Canada:

Other significant recordings and performances include those by Dusty Spring on her 1965 album ‘Ev'rything's Coming Up Dusty’... Los Lonely boys, who have frequently performed the song live...

...and by Belgian Band ‘Telex,’ who created an electronic version for their album ‘How Do You Dance?’:

La Bamba is one of the most popular pieces here on and we have arrangements for over 50 different instruments and combinations, everything from solo recorder to flexible six piece ensemble. Check out our La Bamba arrangements here