February 3, 1959 is marked as the day that music died due to the death of musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson in an airplane crash that occurred near Clear Lake, Iowa. The event was referred to as ‘The Day The Music Died’ after Don McLean’s widely known song ‘American Pie’ mentioned it. It was a dark day, because these men who were legends and still with a great portion of their lives and careers remaining, had their lives snatched away in such an instant moment. Ritchie Valens was the youngest in the accident to die, being only 17 years old, he had an entire career literally just setting off.
This came about the other day when I was figuring out some chords from Ritchie’s rock’n’roll version of the Mexican folk song ‘La Bamba’. I’ve always somehow come across Ritchie Valens’ music one way or another, whether it was this song, or his extremely catchy and charismatic song ‘Come On, Let’s Go’ or the romantic hit ‘Donna’ that was dedicated to his girlfriend. They were all songs that certainly did give birth to a new side of music that we hadn’t seen much of before, Chicano rock and Latino rock, all due to Ritchie’s unique blend between his ancestral Mexican roots and his love for rock’n’roll that is clearly reflected in his music. However, as I was figuring out the magic behind ‘La Bamba’ I grew in curiosity about the artist behind this masterpiece. There really isn’t much out there about Ritchie Valens, he had a very short career and life. All that is left are these extremely successful songs that catapulted him into instant fame, making him a total pop genius in his own right at a very young age. It’s sad how there’s only just that, he wasn’t given the chance to make anything more…
There’s a film out there starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens called ‘La Bamba’, which was released in 1987 depicting the life of Ritchie Valens from ages 16-17 leading up to his death. After watching this film I learnt more about what Ritchie would’ve been like, his personality, talents, and views on life. Ritchie loved music since he was 5 years old growing up listening to a lot of traditional Mexican Mariachi music, R&B, and flamenco guitar, he certainly had a good range of music to take inspiration from. He was actually left-handed but taught himself how to play the guitar the traditional right-handed way, he practically went everywhere with his guitar, he even took it to school with him. Unfortunately Ritchie had a fear of flying, which later on in his life would result to be a bittersweet irony. This was due to the fact that on January 31, 1957, an airplane crashed right into the Pacoima Junior High School yard resulting in some of Ritchie’s friends getting killed. Although Ritchie Valens was not in school on that day, he suffered with the painful consequences of losing his friends at the age of 15 in such a tragic accident, which led him to develop a fear of flying. He got over this fear when he was becoming a successful musician as he had to fly to places like Hawaii quite often, but the damages still remained deep inside.
He was a special guy, one of a kind, a clear indicator that you can do anything if you try hard enough. We remember him through many songs, ‘La Bamba’ being a very popular one that seems to never get old due to Ritchie’s uniquely redeeming approach towards this song. It’s hard to notice this in this song, but Ritchie didn’t know any Spanish, so he’s practically singing this song in the biggest effort to make his Spanish sound good, probably unsure of the meaning behind the lyrics. He’s giving us hope that you too can sound like a native Spanish speaker if you try hard enough. There’s not denying that music has its own language and ways of communicating itself to people, and Ritchie has shown us this through his means of blending the American culture he was raised in with his Mexican lifestyle and antics that his family brought him up with. As a person who was brought up within different cultures, that at times I find myself in total confusion where I’m from and where I belong, I relate to this a lot, and I think a lot of people can relate to this too. Ritchie Valens was the beginning of a new generation of Americans, of teenagers, those who came from Mexican parents but knew no Spanish whatsoever, even thought they identified with the Mexican culture. He inspired many artists and pioneered Latino rock and Chicano rock, his legacy will eternally live on along with his incredible music.