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Yma Sumac – The Allure of the Mysterious

(Small portions of this article were excerpted from "Yma Sumac – The Art Behind the Legend" – soon to be published by YBK Publishers in the United States.)

I am sure that some readers of this website will be confused as to why an article is appearing about Yma Sumac especially since she specialized in popular music and this is a classical music site.

I wasn’t surprised, though, when asked to write the article because I have always thought of Yma Sumac as a classical singer. Now, I guess I should explain. I do not refer to her repertoire but rather to her voice and her manner of singing. She may have sung popular music but she sang it with the finesse and elegance of a classical singer and her voice was one of the great voices of the century when it comes to its sheen and technical dexterity.

No matter what one might think about the Peruvian singer, it remains a fact that during the 1950s, Yma Sumac was a unique performer. She offered international audiences atmospheric songs of exotica, folk-based arrangements and vocal impressions based on nature. These unusual compositions were delivered with a voice of great beauty, impeccable technique, staggering virtuosity and a vocal range of four octaves. Like some kind of hybrid orchestral instrument, she transcended technique and used her voice like a painter’s palette to create remarkable portraits in sound. Adept at improvisation, she was able to subtly embroider her music with grace and elegance.

Yma Sumac was born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo, in Peru. Her date of birth has always been problematic. Most sources accept 10 September 1927, as the correct date. Family members in Peru, however, insist the correct year is 1924.

Her youth is shrouded in convenient mystery but by around 1942 she began to make herself known in Peru and South America as "Imma Sumack," a serious folk singer of the indigenous music of Peru. By 1943 she was making recordings for the Argentinean branch of Odeon.

For a number of years she and her husband, Moisés Vivanco (1918-1998) toured South America and reaped tremendous success with their authentically presented program of folk music. Audiences were entranced by her ability to soar high into the vocal stratosphere and then, moments later, plumb the sub-contralto depths. So successful were they that, in 1946, Yma and Moisés decided to travel to North America to conquer those audiences. Once there, however, they found that the people of North America had little interest in a Peruvian soprano singing folk music – no matter how excellent her voice or how unusual her delivery.

It wasn’t until 1949, after much failure and thought as to the revamping of her voice and material, that Yma and Moisés had fortune smile on them. They accepted a return engagement at the famous Blue Angel Nightclub in New York City. A representative of Capitol Records happened to be present - to hear another singer - but he heard Yma. He was fascinated by her voice and music and so arranged for Yma and Moisés to make some demo recordings. The result, about a year later, was the release of her first North American album – Voice of the Xtabay.

By that time, however, some serious changes had taken place concerning Yma’s singing and music. Gone were the simple peasant outfits; the guitar, accordion, and rattle accompanied music. Now Yma was exotically costumed, loaded down with Incan gold and jewelry and accompanied by a full symphony orchestra. The arrangements of her music had also undergone serious changes as well. For Voice of the Xtabay, Capitol brought in Les Baxter to help fashion the Sumac music into something more palatable for American record buyers. He created a fascinating vocal suite that highlighted both the exotic appeal of Yma’s homeland and her exquisite singing. Between the two of them, Les Baxter and Yma Sumac carved out a niche in the American popular music scene that would eventually become known as "exotica."

Ironically, when singing her folk music in Peru and South America in the 1940s, Sumac was billed simply as a "Peruvian soprano." By 1950, however, due to the efforts of over-zealous press agents and managers, Imma Sumac became Yma Sumac and had metamorphosed into a vocal phenomenon. Publicity releases stressed her ability to sing throughout a four-octave compass and capitalized on her exotic appeal. Not being satisfied with her background, press agents fabricated her biography and Yma ended up an Incan Princess and descendant of the Incan Sun God. For a while America bought the story.

Voice of the Xtabay sold 5,000 copies in one day due to an unprecedented "word of mouth" campaign. Initially there were virtually no advertisements for the record. Within the next decade she made a handful of recordings and toured the world extensively. An advertisement that appeared in the publication Variety, in 1968, showed that Yma had sung in virtually every corner of the world. As of this writing, most of her recordings are still in print. Voice of the Xtabay has the distinction of being one of the few albums in the history of recording that has remained in print - somewhere in the world at least - since its release in 1950.

Although she semi-retired in Peru during the 1970s she was brought out of retirement in 1984 by a Los Angeles artists’ manager, Alan Eichler, and for the next thirteen years continued to appear, internationally, as a cabaret artist. Her last engagement was for the 1997 Montreal Jazz Festival - not a bad ending for a career that had lasted over fifty years. Although not singing at the time of this writing, Yma Sumac is very much alive and lives in the Los Angeles area.

Unfortunately, due to a false rumor that appeared in 1952 that Yma Sumac was really Amy Camus, a Brooklyn housewife who switched the spelling of her name to have a career in vocal exotica, and some unfortunate decisions, during the course of her career, Sumac lost much of her credibility with the American public.

The Voice

There were several things that separated Yma Sumac from other singers. From the Capitol recordings and the few, rare tapes of her in live performance, the actual extent of her range was just over four octaves: from low B to the C (or C#) above high C. Only one recorded example exists of Yma using her complete range. This is the infamous "Chuncho!" (Forest Creatures) recorded in 1953 and found on her third North American album, Inca Taqui. This is Yma at her imitative best.

Another reason for the singularity of Yma’s voice was its uncommonly beautiful timbre and the fact that despite its excessive range, her voice was a homogeneously gorgeous instrument. It was warm, round and full in the lower reaches, honey sweet in the upper. Yma’s lowest tones occasionally took on a husky quality that was often useful in effects. This led into a creamy smooth contralto register of great warmth and color. The middle of the voice was also warm, but subtly lightened as the voice ascended. Around C or D in the staff the voice took on the focus and penetration of a lyric soprano. In classical singers this is the "edge" or "buzz" inherent in voices necessary for projecting over - or through - accompanying instruments. It is also the sign of a healthy, well placed voice. Yma took this clean focus up to the high B or C. This was, however, an area of transition and from that note to the top of her range, a pure, floated head voice was used.

This head voice was Sumac’s true glory; feather-like soft, delicate, and rich with upper harmonics, it was as pure as a flute and similar to the high registers of such classical singers as Amelita Galli-Curci (1882-1963), Maria Ivogün (1891-1987), Erna Sack (1898-1972), and Rita Streich (1920-1987).

Yma’s voice had a natural beauty rather than that acquired through careful and intensive training. Yma insists she never studied voice. A study of her recordings supports this boast. I seriously doubt she had much legitimate or traditional training since one of the results of that training would have been a certain caution or inhibition - especially concerning some of her most famous vocal effects. I do believe, however, that she had a lot of coaching. The difference between working with a teacher and working with a coach is that a teacher concentrates on technical issues while a coach concentrates on interpretive issues.

Because of the intense concentration necessary for vocal study, while working closely with a teacher, a singer learns about the acceptable and unacceptable ways of producing sound. Guided by the teacher, a singer develops a natural tendency to protect the voice from undue pressure or strain, and often becomes preoccupied with the production of that sound. Without any sense of restrictions enforced by a listening or analytical teacher, Yma was free to experiment with her resonance cavities for coloration and effect.

Instinctively, Yma Sumac learned to use her naturally large vocal range, finding the best way to integrate both her range and resonances into her everyday technique. A classically-based vocal instructor would never have allowed Yma to experiment with "the growl" through multi-octaves or let her play with some of her other, more percussive effects. Serious vocal study would only have inhibited her.

As mentioned earlier, by 1950, Yma’s vocal priorities had altered and been augmented as new effects began to be slowly integrated into her style of singing. The range of these new sounds was astonishing for their diversity and innovativeness within a song’s framework. They included an ability to alter the frequency of vibrato, as well as the introduction of clicks, pops, laughs, emphatic voiceless consonants, growls, hums, operatic coloratura and high notes, blues and jazz effects, etc. all of which were woven into the fabric of Yma’s music. Back in 1950, record listeners were stunned. Interestingly, even today, almost sixty years later, the outrageous conglomeration that Yma’s singing had become can still startle.

Although much of her music now seems dated, Yma Sumac’s singing remains as unique and fresh as it was when North Americans first heard the petite Peruvian. Much of this has to do with the improvisatory nature of her singing, and the unique musical form that she created: Folk/Popular music/rhythm, set in an exotic framework, classically sung.

On paper at least, there are definite clashes. When listening, however, many of these differences mesh together, lose much of their individual importance and combine to create a new, novel style of singing. Part of its success is due to Yma’s authoritative, no nonsense delivery and her absolute belief in what she is doing which transcends many of the problems. Also, because much of her singing was improvisatory, there is a unique aura of spontaneity found on many of her recordings that propels the unlikely material into an entirely different artistic sphere.

Fortunately, Yma Sumac left posterity a fine legacy of recordings. Below is a list of a few CDs and comments about what is special about each one. I will only be discussing her solo albums. Most are available in the larger record stores and online from such websites as Amazon.com.

1943 Odeon Discs (very difficult to find)

(In 1952, 8 of these selections were released by the American recording firm, Coral. Long out of print it remains a collector’s item.)

Virgenes del Sol 1996 Discos Hispanos Del Peru Under license of Capitol Records (EMI) 020428

Seven 78 rpm recordings from 1943

North American recordings:-

Capitol Records

Voice of the Xtabay (1950) – now includes Inca Taqui (1953)

Legend of the Sun Virgin (1951) T2-91250

Inca Taqui (1953) 91217

Mambo! (1954) T2-800863

Legend of the Jivaro (1956) – T2-36355

Fuego del Ande (1959) – T2 32681

Decca (1971); JOM remixing 1998

Miracles (Yma Rocks) – Jom 1027-2

In 1956, when Capitol re-released the Sumac recordings, onto the 12" LP format, (they were originally released as 78 rpm and 10" LP recordings) Voice of the Xtabay (1950) and Inca Taqui (1953) were combined. In addition, new tracks were added to Legend of the Sun Virgin and Mambo! to match the new time possibilities of the 12" LP format.

The 1943 Odeons

Although Yma Sumac’s unusual 1943 recordings have yet to be released complete, the EMI-leased Virgenes del Sol, released in South America in 1996, has 7 of the 17 selections. Unfortunately, this CD is extremely hard to come by. This is too bad because these 78 rpm discs are fascinating. Anyone familiar with Sumac’s bewitching art as found on the Capitol discs will not recognize the singing of Imma Sumack as she was then known. Simple, unpretentious, and beautifully poised, emphasis in the early recordings was on authenticity rather than vocal gymnastics - although there are many instances of the latter in such pieces as "Virgenes del Sol," "Amor Indio" "Waraka Tusuy" and others. In such pieces, however, accent is on octave display rather than outré vocalism. The music and accompaniment are simple and so is Yma’s delivery. Hidden among all this simplicity is a surprising range extension - from a touched high F sharp to a vibrant low E.

A.N. After a conversation with Don Pierson of the Sunvirgin.com website, it appears that there will be a commercial release of all the Argentinean disks on CD in the near future. Don will be producing it and in charge of the transfers which will be from the original 78 rpm recordings. Although I am not sure of the date, I suggest that any reader interested should keep checking regularly www.Sunvirgin.com for any news about this new release.

Voice of the Xtabay (1950)

1. "Taita Inty" (Virgin of the Sun God, Hymn to the Sun)

2. "Ataypura" (High Andes)

3. "Accla Taqui" (Chant of the Chosen maidens)

4. "Tumpa!" (Earthquake)

5. "Choladas" (Dance of the Moon Festival)

6. "Wayra" (Dance of the Winds)

7. "Monos" (Monkeys)

8. "Xtabay" (Lure of the Unknown Love)

By the time this recording was made Yma had become a product of the American publicity machine. Most people get their first introduction to Yma Sumac through this record and it is the perfect way to discover this unique voice. Baxter’s scoring of the songs has an allure that seems timeless. With hints of Ravel and Stravinsky he managed to create the perfect support for Yma’s distinctly idiosyncratic singing. For her part, she traces her vocal line with incredible virtuosity and displays a range from G above high C to the D below middle C – exotic, eerie, unearthly.

There are countless great moments during these eight selections, but probably the most stunning happens at the mid-point of "Tumpa!" (Earthquake). It is there that Yma sings an ascent from the contralto F sharp to the coloratura soprano F sharp three octaves above with not one note out of place. It remains one of the most beautiful three octave ascents ever recorded.

Other songs to look out for include: "Taita Inty," (Virgin of the Sun God, a.k.a. The Hymn to the Sun). Surely nothing better represents Yma’s vocal ability than this staggering vocal display. The excessive number of high notes in this short piece (2:57) demonstrates the comfortable height of Yma’s voice and the song’s unusual difficulty. Most operatic coloratura sopranos, even high note specialists – the acuto sfogati - would balk over such requirements. For example "Taita Inty" includes 16 high F’s (four times what is needed to sing the Queen of the Night’s Vengeance aria from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte), 22 high E’s, and 29 high C's.

"Monos" (Monkeys), Xtabay (Lure of the Unknown Love) are also listener favorites. Of them all, however, it is "Ataypura" (High Andes) that remained Yma’s theme song. This was a piece that she sang until her last engagements and it was also heavily scored into the 1954 Paramount Adventure film, Secret of the Incas in which Yma starred.

I have heard Voice of the Xtabay thousands of times. I know every note, every breath Yma takes in every song and yet, even after so many years, the album still has the ability to thrill and amaze me. It remains one of my Desert Island discs.

Legend of the Sun Virgin (1951)

1. "Karibe Taki" (Caribean Song, also known as "Alma Tristese")

2. "Witallia" (Fire in the Andes)

3. "Lament" (Yma’s Lament) -)

4. "Zana"

5. "Kuyaway" (Inca Love Song)

6. "Suray Surita"

7. "No es Vida"

8. "Mamallay"

Also recorded in 1951, but not released until February 1956, when the album was re-released as a 12" disc:

9. "Kon Tiki"

10. "Montana" (Lullaby)

11. "Panarima"

12. "Ccori Canastitay" (Golden Basket)

Yma’s next solo album was the infamous Legend of the Sun Virgin. Although an admirable vocal obstacle course, the music on this recording shows Yma’s growing preoccupation with crowding as many vocal effects as possible into a song’s fabric. This would settle down after the next album. Like the previous album, Legend of the Sun Virgin seems to be loosely based on the form of a vocal suite. Some songs, like the opening "Karibe Taki," as well as "Suray Surita" "Zana," and "Kon Tiki" benefit from all this attention; being fascinating pieces of vocal virtuosity that bear up well to repeated hearings. "Montana" was a piece she kept in her repertoire for forty-six years. A gentle lullaby, its simplicity obviously appealed to the Peruvian. "Kuyaway" (Incan Love Song) is a clever, involved reworking of the 1943 "Amor Indio." Although a stunning display of Yma’s vocal prowess, one misses the simple beauty of the earlier version. Vocally, a stunning album.

Inca Taqui (1953)

1. "K’arawi" (Planting Song)

2. "Cumbe-Maita" (Calls of the Andes)

3. "Wak’ai" (Cry)

4. "Incacho" (Royal Anthem)

5. "Chuncho!" (Forest Creatures)

6. "Llulla Mak’ta" (Andean Don Juan)

7. "Malaya" (My Destiny)

8. "Ripui" (Farewell)

This album is now coupled with Voice of the Xtabay. Recorded in 1953, it is among Yma’s most famous recordings and has her most famous song – "Chuncho!" (Forest Creatures). "Chuncho!" was a concert favorite. Critics often detested the piece since they truly did not know what to make of it, but audiences were spellbound by Yma’s bizarre, mesmerizing vocalism. Nothing like it had ever been heard at that time and nothing in the annals of recorded history has equaled the sounds Yma manages to create during the course of this three-minute piece of music. There is no melody to speak of, only sounds imitative of the winds, beasts and birds of the jungle. Program music in the extreme, it is supported only by Moisés’ guitar, the quena (Peruvian flute), and native drums. Yma’s voice takes on all sorts of shades and colors from whispered sounds to rough growling, to volleys of high stacatti. And then there is her infamous "double-voiced trill." This is actually a clever vocal trick - an uncanny ability Yma had to utilize a register break around the A above high C. She would oscillate back and forth between the notes to form a facsimile of a trill. It is a startling effect and once heard never forgotten. Although she did do this particular effect in front of audiences, generally it took place about a third lower. No matter where it takes place – it is still a remarkable effect.

Mambo! (1954)

1. "Bo Mambo"

2. "Taki Rari"

3. "Gopher Mambo

4. "Chicken Talk"

5. "Malambo #1"

6. "Five Bottle Mambo"

7. "Indian Carnival"

8. "Jungla"

Also recorded in 1954, but not released until 1956:

9. "Goomba Boomba"

10. "Cha Cha Gitano"

11. "Carnavalito Boliviano"

To this day, this album remains one of Yma’s most popular releases. It is a joy from the first note to the last. Brilliantly sung, the album is as unique as its singer - whose vocalism is addictive. Judged by any criteria, this is absolutely remarkable singing. Yma is generous with the use of her high register – all the way to brilliantly sustained high Fs, but also descends to rich, basso C’s. Every piece on the album is fun and full of staggering virtuosity. Especially popular are "Gopher Mambo," "Taki Rari," and "Chicken Talk." A few pieces, such as "Gopher Mambo" and "Bo Mambo" have even been used in American television commercials and movies. As a whole, this album is one of Yma’s most admirable efforts. Be sure not to miss this one

Legend of the Jivaro (1956) (out of print at the time of this writing)

1. "Jivaro" ( War Cry)

2. "Sejollo" (Whip Dance)

3. "Yawar" (Blood Festival)

4. "Shou Condor" (Great Condor)

5. "Suama" (Magic)

6. "Nina" (Fire Arrow Dance)

7. "Sansa" (Victory Song)

8. "Hampi" (Medicine)

9. "Sumac Sorateña"

10. "Aullay" (Lullaby)

11. "Batanga Hailli" (Festival)

12. "Wanka" (The Seven Winds)

Probably the last of Yma’s great Capitol albums – although with qualifications. Recorded while the singer was in the midst of personal problems and divorce issues, the singing occasionally sounds psychotic. The liner-notes are offensive in their brazen attempt to con listeners into believing that Yma and Moisés trudged through Amazonian Jungles to gather these slight tunes – especially since at least one of them appeared - in a different arrangement - on Mambo! two years earlier! Aside from that, Yma’s singing is certainly strong and often amazing. One of the loveliest things she recorded was the final song on this album – "Song of the Seven Winds." Using only a voiceless "Sh" and performing the piece as a vocalize of only one octave, there is a lovely simplicity to the music that is as endearing as it is moving. "Suama" (Magic) and Hampi (Medicine) are just odd. Despite musical drawbacks, Yma sprinkles the music with some delicious high D’s and E’s and the voice is in excellent condition.

Fuego del Ande (1959)

1. "La Molina" (The Mill Song)

2. "Flor de Canela" (Cinnamon Flower)

3. "Gallito Caliente" (The Hot Rooster)

4. "La Pampa y la Puna" (The Plains and the Mountains)

5. "Dale que Dale "(The Workers Song)

6. "Llora Corazon" (Crying Heart)

7. "Huachina" (Enchanted Lake)

8. "La Perla de Chira" (The Pearl)

9. "Mi Palomita" (My Pigeon)

10. "Virgenes del Sol"

11. "Gallito Ciego"

12. "Clamor"

This has never been one of my favorites. It is a program of South American folk and popular songs. Although authentic that virtue is completely ruined by the grotesque arrangements used – some of which are just embarrassing. Also, Yma’s singing is just not that interesting. Yma was always a singer of elegance and dignity and to be surrounded by such drivel is insulting. It is unfortunate that Legend of the Jivaro is out of print while this tacky album remains in print. Many listeners, on hearing this album will assume that Yma’s vocal abilities were in decline by this time (1959) – but nothing was further from the truth. Within two years she was touring Russia and Eastern Europe in a huge tour that has since become legendary.

(In December of 2006, ESP Records released "Yma Sumac - Live in Concert - the Russian Tour." [ESP CD 4029] an excellent re-mastering of a concert that has been circulating among Sumac buffs for decades but in inferior sound. Although I do not have the space to discuss it here, anyone interested in Yma Sumac should get this fascinating disc – available from Amazon.com)

Miracles (1971) (now known as Yma Rocks)

1. "Remember"

2. "Medicine Man"

3. "Let me Hear You" (Lord, Lord, Lord)

4. "Tree of Life"

5. "Flame Tree"

6. "Zebra" -

7. "Azure Sands"

8. "Look Around"

9. "Magenta Mountain"

10. "El Condor Pasa" -

Also recorded in 1971, but not released until 1998’s YMA ROCKS!

11. "Parade"

12. "Savage Rock" (originally called "Moses")

Originally released by London Records (Decca) in 1971, this bizarre hard-rock album was withdrawn within a couple of months due to a law suit Yma brought against London Records concerning inaccurate liner-notes. It remained out of print for decades. Originally the album was produced by three business men from New York who sold the recording to Decca. One of them, Robert Covais, who owned the master tape, had it re-mixed and re-released on CD in 1998 by JOM Records. A brilliant album and mix it can still be bought from www.sunvirgin.com. – one of the main Yma Sumac web sites. The first reuniting of Yma Sumac and Les Baxter since Voice of the Xtabay, the album offers the listener much that is high on camp but also high on listening rewards. The music may be a bit uninspired but Yma’s singing certainly is not. Still in command of over three octaves the new technology allows one to hear the improvisations of three or four Sumacs at the same time. The two favorite tracks are "Remember", a dynamic, tour de force that recalls Yma’s multi-octave singing from twenty years earlier and "Magenta Mountain," the ballad of the album which boasts some sweet warbling by Yma over simple guitar accompaniment. It ends with her surprising the listener by spinning an exquisite, pianissimo high E flat. Everyone should have this album.

I hope that I have managed to give you at least a hint of the wonderful experiences Yma Sumac’s albums offer the listener. If you are not familiar with her work do give her a try. I think you will be surprised. She and her music still have the ability to sweep one off into distant lands of secret ritual, ruined temples and steamy jungles.

One thing does need to be understood, however. When Yma Sumac made her recordings they were meant to be listened to without distraction. They are mood compositions not music to accompany chores or while multi-tasking as is so often the case today. In creating atmosphere through countless vocal effects, she prompts the listener to use their imagination to form their personal mental scenario of what she was portraying. Much of Yma Sumac's repertoire was program music - music where the only effect sought is the creation of a mood or atmosphere, the listener guided by titles or program notes, a popular music version of classical composers' tone poems and much symphonic literature. Its premise is similar to the days before television, when listeners would crowd around the radio for such programs as "The Shadow" and "Inner Sanctum," creating their own private scenarios guided by the words of the actors on the radio.

Succeeding generations have grown up with the advent of television which quickly superseded radio’s importance. It was no longer necessary to create a scenario - television provided that. Yma Sumac’s music, however, requires mental participation. Only then is it possible for the listener’s mind to wander to a new land and to reap the full benefits of her singing.

In the end, today’s listener should approach Yma Sumac’s singing and recordings as theatrical entertainment, unique in its presentation and a product of its era. It is a product with the simplest of messages - enjoy.

Nicholas E. Limansky
July 2007



 


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