Sunday, 30 September 2012

Yma Sumac: The Art Behind the Legend

/ Operatic Enchantress Yma Sumac /

Make mine a Blue Hawaii! I’ve been in an exotica-drenched frame of mind lately. Trace it back to me buying the Ultra-Lounge CD Mondo Exotica (“Mysterious Melodies and Tropical Tiki Tunes”) at Amoeba Records when I was last in San Francisco in April 2012 (it’s been a staple of my DJ’ing sets ever since).  In my last post I wrote about the elusive turbaned 1950s heartthrob Korla Pandit; this time I wanted to pay tribute to another icon of exotica, the wondrous Peruvian soprano Yma Sumac (13 September 1922 – 1 November 2008).

Controversial pop culture theorist Camille Paglia has rhapsodised about the impact of Sumac’s 1950 debut album Voice of the Xtabay on her imagination and sensibility as an impressionable child, especially its sensational cover:

"The cover image of  Voice of the Xtabay with a glamorous Sumac in the pose of a prophesying priestess against a background of fierce sculptures and an erupting volcano, contains the entire pagan worldview and nature cult of what would become my first book, Sexual Personae, published 40 years later. Thank you, Yma!"

I’ve loved Sumac’s ululating voice,  regal persona and tempestuous musical vision since the 1990s when her old albums began being reissued on CD at the height of the lounge music revival vogue (especially her classic 1954 album Mambo! -- never was an exclamation point more deserved). Lately I feel like re-discovering Sumac, and delving deeper into her back catalogue.

In the Winter 2008 print issue of Nude (the sadly now defunct alternative arts and culture magazine) I reviewed the biography Yma Sumac: The Art Behind the Legend by Nicholas E Limanksy (YBK Publishers Inc).  (Weirdly, the issue of Nude featuring this review virtually coincided with the news of Sumac’s death – an eerie coincidence). Anyway, here it is below:
Of all the pre rock’n’roll singers unearthed in the 1990s lounge revolution, the strangest and most exotic was Yma Sumac.  In the 1950s the operatic Peruvian diva was a genuine pop culture phenomenon, boggling the minds of international audiences with her berserk four octave vocal range and mystical Incan high priestess image.   A lovingly researched new biography argues that Sumac (dubbed the “Voice of the Earthquake”) was both one of the first beneficiaries and casualties of record company hype.
Nicholas E Limansky charts the journey of the former Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo from her modest roots as an authentic Andean folk singer wearing traditional Peruvian costume to her emergence as the enigmatic Yma Sumac, bejewelled ersatz princess supposedly descended from Emperor Atahualpa, peddling a Hollywood-ised interpretation of what purported to be ancient Incan music.  Sumac’s “career (was) in a constant state of compromise”, Limansky argues, characterised by “corruption of musical and ethnic innocence; of artistic ideals.”

 In hindsight Capital Records’ public relations spin was not particularly adroit (Limansky notes they persistently scrambled Incan and Aztec imagery on Sumac’s record covers) but initially it was massively successful: in 1950 her debut album Voice of the Xtabay went to number 1. The absurd publicity overdrive led to a backlash, though. Her parasitic manager-husband Moises Vivanco alienated many. The arrival of Elvis heralded the end of her chart topping days. And by The Beatles Sumac was a relic.
Obscurity beckoned until her albums were reissued on CD in the 1990s. Sumac’s rise had coincided with the fascination for all things exotic after World War Two: Latin, African and Polynesian music; Tiki lounges; tropical cocktails. When a new generation of hipsters embraced this pagan and taboo strand of Exotica lounge music its proponents Les Baxter and Martin Denny became cult figures – and Yma Sumac rehabilitated as the scene’s high empress.   

While the pleasure in listening to Sumac’s intoxicating music is analogous to donning a Hawaiian shirt or drinking a Mai Tai, she shouldn’t be dismissed as purely kitsch or camp. Heard today Yma Sumac’s remarkable voice still inspires awe.  

/ In 1954 Sumac made her film debut in the Hollywood adventure film Secret of the Incas, starring Charlton Heston. You can watch the film in its entirety on Youtube, but be warned – it’s pretty stultifying.  It does, however, capture Sumac in the supporting role of Kori-Tica at the height of her haughty, raven-haired beauty and in full nostril-flaring cry -- all in glorious 1950s Technicolour. Here are her best bits: /

Bonus track: the eerie and otherworldy "Chuncho": Yma Sumac at her witchy best.

Further reading:

The Yma Sumac biography The Art Behind the Legend was published on demand by YBK Publishers Inc. You can always contact them via their website

Yma Sumac's entry on Allmusic Guide website

Yma Sumac on Wikipedia

The official Yma Sumac website is a thing of great beauty

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