We’re hitting a bit of a latin groove in the summer of ’87. After Madonna’s two ‘¿hablas español?’ chart-toppers, here are some actual Mexicans…
La Bamba, by Los Lobos (their 1st and only #1)
2 weeks, from 26th July – 9th August 1987
OK. Los Lobos (The Wolves) are from California, but they’re of Mexican heritage, and sound to these untrained ears like the real deal. This is a nice, insanely catchy, interlude at the top of the charts – not just because it’s something a little different, but also because actual guitar-led number one singles were rarer than hens’ teeth in the mid-1980s.
It’s also not often that we get a fully foreign-language record at the top, either. In my initial notes on this, I wrote that it was only the 3rd of the decade. Now I’m struggling to think what the other two were… There’s Julio Iglesias’s similarly Spanish smoothy ‘Begin the Beguine’ (which, to be fair, has a couple of lines of English). Oh yes, and how could I forget Falco’s ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ which, title aside, was fully auf Deutsch.
What is a ‘Bamba’, I’m wondering? It’s not a thing, as such… More of a dance. There’s no direct translation, but the verb bombolear means to shake, or wobble, and so a derivative dance would presumably have a bit of hip wiggling. Put the rest of the Spanish lyrics through a translator, and it turns out to be a bit of a nonsense tune: To dance ‘La Bamba’, You need a bit of grace… I’m not a sailor, I’m a captain… Bam-ba, Bamba…
‘La Bamba’ was originally a hit for Ritchie Valens, and the Los Lobos version featured in a biopic released at the same time as the hit record. Which taps into another emerging theme of 1987: soundtrack hits. ‘Stand by Me’, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, ‘Who’s That Girl’, now this, have all made top-spot at least in part thanks to movies. The Valens film told the story of the first Latino rock ‘n’ roll star, whose rise to fame ended in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper when he was just seventeen.
‘La Bamba’ has a much longer history, though. It’s a Mexican folk song, of the son jarocho school, meaning that its roots stretch back centuries and that this is actually a pretty unique and culturally significant chart-topper. The earliest recording of ‘La Bamba’ is from the ‘30s. Valens took a song he presumably knew from childhood and gave it a rock ‘n’ roll twist… And it eventually ended up on top of the British charts some thirty years later, sandwiched between Madonna and Michael Jackson. The instrumental fade-out in particular sounds very authentically Mexican, though I think that was cut from the single edit.
Los Lobos had been around since the 1970s, and remain around today – having just released an album last year. This cover was by far their biggest hit, though, and what a hit: a #1 from the USA to New Zealand, via the UK, France and seemingly everywhere in-between. And, like I said in the intro, it’s been a refreshing change of pace. Up next, though, we’re back with the eighties big-hitters. The biggest of hitters: MJ himself.