Yma Sumac 1922 - 2008

Posted by Whitmore, November 3, 2008 10:32am | Post a Comment

Yma Sumac
the legendary, one of a kind singer famous for her 4 1/2 octave range, has died in Los Angeles. She was 86.

Peruvian born, she was the personification of exoticism, making her an international sensation in the 1950’s. After signing with Capitol Records in 1950, the striking, raven-haired beauty became known as the "Nightingale of the Andes," and the "Peruvian Songbird." Her first album, Voice of the Xtabay, rocketed to the top of the LP charts introducing a whole new genre, Exotica, to the music buying public. During her heyday, Sumac headlined at the some of the most prestigious venues in the world, such as the Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall and Royal Albert Hall. She reportedly made $25,000 a week in Las Vegas and turned down offers to sing with New York's Metropolitan Opera. Her eccentric costumes and stage settings were often extremely elaborate, filling stages with native dressed drummers and dancers and caged wild birds. Yma Sumac was also featured in the 1951 Broadway musical Flahooley and appeared in the films Secret of the Incas in 1954 and Omar Khayyam in 1957.

Although details of her birth and early life have varied greatly, lending mightily to her legend, the biggest misconception was that she was born in Brooklyn as Amy Camus -- Sumac was actually born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo in Cajamarca, Peru, on Sept. 13, 1922. After performing and recording in Argentina in the early 40’s, she and her husband, bandleader Moises Vivanco, moved to New York City in 1946, where they performed as the Inca Taky Trio, with Vivanco on guitar, Sumac singing soprano and Cholita Rivero, her cousin, singing contralto and dancing.

My favorite record of hers, and one that is almost impossible to find, is Sumac’s 1971 psychedelic album entitled Miracles. It is truly an odd musical experience, and to be perfectly honest Miracles is kind of hit or miss, but it does have some great moments. Yma Sumac’s voice has lost some of its dramatic range, but she can still pull off the Yma Sumac mystic. Exotica legend Les Baxter produced the record, and his experience writing for all those Beach Party movies works well here. The production safely balances the distorted guitars and the foreign sound of 1950’s bird calls and Hollywood primitivism pretty well. Shortly after Miracles' limited release, she "semi-retired" to Peru. Eventually Sumac did return to concerts halls, performing at the Vine Street Bar & Grill and the Cinegrill in Hollywood in 1984. By the early `90s, she returned to touring, especially in Europe, and continued to do so until about 1997.

Yma Sumac, who divorced and then remarried Moises Vivanco in the late `50s and then divorced him again in 1965, is survived by their son, Charles, and three sisters who live in Peru.

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Les Baxter (3), Obits (63), Exotica (12), Yma Sumac (5), 1950's (53)