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La Bamba: A song evolved from the slave fields

Afro-Mexicans have contributed greatly to Mexico’s rich heritage of dance, music and song

The African-Mexican confluence in music, and dance are some of the cultural contributions from Africa interwoven in Mexican culture that are wholly unknown by the larger society

One in an occasional series on Afro-Mexican culture.

That African and Mexican roots have a historical connection may be more obscured than denied, as some believe. Scholars and historians have established the empirical evidence, but their findings have lacked universal embrace necessary to erode the haze that still pervades the public psyche in Mexico.

This could be the result of general ignorance and naiveté or reluctance by mainstream media and educational networks to inform and school the public. Whichever, the truth cannot be denied, and is only now unraveling that Africans left indelible imprints in Mexico during colonial gestation.

And now that the Mexican government has decreed official recognition of Afro-Mexicans in the National Census, the estranged ethnic minority may now present a more pronounced public persona, sharing who they are – cultural traits, habits, and norms that have been largely hidden from public view.

Carnival Coyolillo in Veracruz

Some cultural contributions from African assimilation interwoven in Mexican culture, are unknown by the larger society. Three areas of significance involve music, dance, and food. For this issue, we will present music and dance, which represent moments of relaxation and pleasure for most cultures throughout the world.

In Mexico, Indigenous people and Afro-Mexicans still play ancient African instruments performing songs and musical accompaniment to dances – which pay tribute to their forebears and recall uprisings by them against their cruel Spanish taskmasters.

Afro-Mexicans have contributed greatly to Mexico’s rich heritage of dance, music and song. Many musicians there – Central American and Ecuadorian, included – play traditional African instruments like “hand pianos” and the marimba, which have their origins in Africa and are used to perform “the ceremonial dance of the Black people,” and “corridos” (song-stories), which tell of slave uprisings.

The famous carnival celebrated in Coyolillo, Veracruz has African origins. Mexico’s food, language and spiritual practices on display at the festival have been influenced by the descendants of African slaves.

Journalist Patrisia Gonzales, who along with fellow journalist and husband Roberto Rodriguez, collaborated on a series of columns published as an anthology in 1997, titled, Gonzales & Rodriguez: Uncut and Uncensored. They know the stories all too well.

“Black immigrants to the country must be recognized and included in this equation, as well. Many fled to Mexico during the years of slavery in the United States, seeking asylum and refuge,” writes Patrisia.

Gonzales and Rodriguez served as lecturers on social movements in Mexico for years at the University of California in San Diego. Both are keenly familiar with music and dance traditions in Mexico, especially the highly popular annual Carnival Coyolillo of Veracruz.

Patrisia Gonzales’ writing offers a glimpse of the festival:

“The Coyolillo is a community located in the municipality of Actopan, about 21 kilometers east of the city of Xalapa and nine kilometers northwest of the county seat. In this region, the Spanish brought slaves from Africa to work in the sugarcane haciendas of La Concepcion, San Sebastián, Maxtlatlan and Almolonga, formerly called Santa Rosa de Coyolillo.

“Within the festive season celebrating several communities in the river basin Actopan is particularly important carnival celebration, as in the case of The Coyolillo, Almolonga, Alto Tío Diego and white foam. In this carnival, a formation of “black” runs through the village. His dress is round neck tunics made of printed cotton fabric with colorful flowers. This garment reaches below the knees and can lead fringed at the bottom edge. Above, the “black” always has a layer that goes from the head to where the robe comes, although some people prefer to use shorter.

“Blacks are accompanied by the ‘oldies’ who wear masks elderly, and ‘oldies,’ men dressed as women. Together jarochos dance and dance sones ‘Gule, Guamkulu’ which is originally from Africa, these masks are sold. Some improvised masks and caps from any material: boxes of biscuits, footballs, plastic jugs, pots and sacks, among others. His attire is striking for carelessness involved, and that it may be pants inside or outside bags.

“These populations live in the countryside, and visitors only have welcoming smiles and invitations to eat, to taste the typical food of the region.”

Contempo versions of ‘La Bamba’

Many things in contemporary society are not as they appear. We think we know the truth about many places and things, but there is no merit to the stories about them and over time the stories and half-truths are just passed down from one person to the next time and again.

One such fable is the origin of the famous song La Bamba. Mexican-Americans have adopted the rhythmic, guitar-laced Tejano rock and roll song for festive occasions since 1958, when it was famously adapted by singer Ritchie Valens. La Bamba became a top 40 hit on the U.S. charts and one of early rock and roll’s best-known songs. Valens’ version is ranked number 354 on Rolling Stone magazine′s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

But La Bamba wasn’t done reaching for higher heights with Valens’ version. The famed multiple Grammy Award-winning rock band Los Lobos from East Los Angeles, rendered a version that was the title track of the 1987 film La Bamba and reached No. 1 on U.S. and UK singles charts in the same year. The Los Lobos version was No. 1 for three weeks in the summer of 1987.

The music video for Los Lobos’ version, directed by Sherman Halsey, won the 1988 MTV Video Music Award for Best Video from a Film.

Quite an achievement and contribution from Mexican-American culture. There’s no understating that – but it would only be half true.

Most immersed in Mexican and Latin culture more than likely would not be able to conceive of the true origins of the song. The unmitigated truth about La Bamba is that it was created long before Ritchie Valens or Los Lobos ascended to stardom on its wings.

It will surprise many that La Bamba owes its creation to enslaved Africans, specifically those of the MBamba tribe which inhabited Angola and Congo in West Africa. La Bamba is a traditional folk song and dance of the Mbamba of the musical genre, Jarocho, first sung by them as they toiled in silver mines, sugar cane plantations, and cattle ranches of Veracruz, Mexico in 1683 under the cruel indignities of the Spaniards.

The MBamba people who made their lives along the Bamba River that connected Angola and Congo, may have been stolen from their homeland, but they did not part without their culture and origins of the song. It is documented La Bamba refers to a specific incident in Veracruz in 1683, when pirates attacked the people there – free and enslaved – creating a climate for revolt. Over time the Spaniards’ mistreatment of the slaves increased so horribly, they revolted in what became known as the “Bambarria” uprising. The slaves fled their tormentors and joined forces with the Indigenous natives in the rain forests and mountainous areas.

Influenced by Afro-Mexican and Spanish flamenco rhythms, the song evolved from the slave fields with Spanish interaction using the violin, jaranas, guitar, and harp. Lyrics to the song also varied, as performers often improvised verses.

According to Patrisia Gonzales, the Los Lobos variation resonated most with her “because it [remains] more faithfully with the original song where the tempo increases at song’s conclusion.”

“The traditional “La Bamba” as it evolved over time with the culture was often played during weddings in Veracruz, where the bride and groom performed the accompanying dance,” she writes. “Today this wedding tradition is mostly lost, but the dance survives through the popularity of [the] ballet Folklórico. The dance is performed in much the same way, displaying the newlywed couple’s unity through the performance of complicated, delicate steps in unison as well as through creation of a bow from a listón, a long red ribbon, using only their feet.

“The ‘arriba’ (literally “up”) part of the song suggests the nature of the dance, in which the footwork, called ‘zapateado,’ is done faster and faster as the music tempo accelerates,” Patrisia continued. “The repeated lyric, ‘Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán’ (literally: “I am not a sailor, I am a captain”), refers to Veracruz’s marine locale and the husband’s promise that he will remain faithful to his wife.”

As Patrisia notes in her writings, “the African influence in Mexico, and the entire hemisphere, encompasses all of this hemisphere, from jazz, to blues, to gospel, to rhythm & blues, to the syncopated beat that still permeates much of American music, a beat with roots to African slaves in America, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central, and South America.”

‘Everything to do with Blackness’

Dr. Bobby Vaughn, who earned a doctorate in anthropology from Stanford University and has taught courses at the university on Race and Ethnicity in Mexico, Blackness in Latin America, Anthropology of Mexico, Latin American Area Studies, and Race and Ethnicity in Cross-Cultural Perspective, added more insight into the African influence on Mexican and Latin America music.

“Perhaps the music that best personifies the culture of Veracruz is the son jarocho, the moniker by which most Veracruzanos identify their regional identity, regardless of their race,” Vaughn said. “But the word’s origins have everything to do with Blackness. In the colonial era, the word was used to refer to Blacks of mixed race and to Blacks in general.

“The son jarocho is not simply a relic from the past, preserved by the older generations, however. There are countless performers throughout the central and southern parts of the state,” Vaughn noted. “In addition to Afro-Mexican towns, like El Coyolillo, and mestizo towns, like Tlacotalpan, the son jarocho is also performed in Indigenous communities in Indigenous languages.

“Thus, the son jarocho is an example of the confluence of cultures in Veracruz, where the son, in spite of being a product of different heritages or perhaps precisely because of this is embraced by nearly all Veracruzanos as an important part of their jarocho identity.”

Said Patrisia Gonzales – “Rumba, habanera, Argentine tango, bolero, merengue, cumbia, salsa, and even the mambo that was so popular in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s, all have roots in African (and Latin) traditions.

The legacy of Africa throughout the Americas rings with harmony as Gonzales eloquently sums up:

“The next time you hear the song La Bamba, take time to pause and thank the Black enslaved people of Mexico for giving us the gift of this song. If not for their contributions to the music of Latin America …

“We would not have such a lovely and delightful song to sing, and dance to. All are examples of the still thriving African legacy in Mexico,” she said.

If you know other examples of ways the culture of Africa and Mexico intersect, feel free to comment below.

<p>Jarrette Fellows, Jr. is Publisher and Editor of Compton Herald. He attended junior and senior high school in Compton, and is an alumnus of California State University, Los Angeles.</p>