Yma Sumac (September 13, 1922, or September 10, 1923 – November 1, 2008), sometimes spelled Yma Súmac, was a Peruvian soprano. In the 1950s, she was one of the most famous proponents of exotica music.
Sumac became an international success based on her extreme vocal range, which was said to be “well over five octaves” at the peak of her singing career.
Sumac recorded an extraordinarily wide vocal range of 5 octaves, 3 notes and a semitone ranging from E2 to B♭7 (approximately 107 Hz to 3.7 kHz). In one live recording of “Chuncho”, she sings a range of over four and a half octaves, from B2 to F♯7. She was able to sing notes in the low baritone register as well as notes above the range of an ordinary soprano and notes in the whistle register. Both low and high extremes can be heard in the song Chuncho (The Forest Creatures) (1953). She was also apparently able to sing in an eerie “double voice”.
In 1954, classical composer Virgil Thomson described Sumac’s voice as “very low and warm, very high and birdlike”, noting that her range “is very close to five octaves, but is in no way inhuman or outlandish in sound”. In 2012, audio recording restoration expert John H. Haley favorably compared Súmac’s tone to opera singers Isabella Colbran, Maria Malibran, and Pauline Viardot. He described Súmac’s voice as not having the “bright penetrating peal of a true coloratura soprano”, but having in its place “an alluring sweet darkness…virtually unique in our time”.
She was born on either September 13, 1922, or September 10, 1923, most likely in Callao, a seacoast city in Peru; but, possibly, according to herself, in Ichocán, an Indian village. Her parents were Sixto Chávarri and Emilia Castillo. Her father was born in Cajamarca and her mother was born in Pallasca. Stories published in the 1950s claimed that she was an Incan princess, directly descended from Atahualpa. The government of Peru in 1946 formally supported her claim to be descended from Atahualpa, the last Incan emperor”.
Chávarri adopted the stage name of Imma Sumack (also spelled Ymma Sumack and Ima Sumack) before she left South America to go to the United States. The stage name was based on her mother’s name, which was derived from Ima Shumaq, Quechua for “how beautiful!” although in interviews she claimed it meant “beautiful flower” or “beautiful girl”.
Sumac first appeared on radio in 1942. She recorded at least 18 tracks of Peruvian folk songs in Argentina in 1943. These early recordings for the Odeon label featured Moisés Vivanco’s group, Compañía Peruana de Arte, a group of 46 Indian dancers, singers, and musicians.
She married composer and best friend Moises Vivanco on June 6, 1942. She had a son, Charles, in 1949. In 1946, Sumac and Vivanco moved to New York City, where they performed as the Inka Taky Trio, Sumac singing soprano, Vivanco on guitar, and her cousin Cholita Rivero singing contralto and dancing. She was signed by Capitol Records in 1950, at which time her stage name became Yma Súmac. Her first album, Voice of the Xtabay, launched a period of fame that included performances at the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall.
In 1950 she made her first tour to Europe and Africa, and debuted at the Royal Albert Hall in London and the Royal Festival Hall before the Queen. She presented more than 80 concerts in London alone and 16 concerts in Paris. A second tour took her to travel to the Far East: Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, Sumatra, the Philippines, and Australia. Her fame in countries like Greece, Israel and Russia made her change her two weeks stay to six months offering fabulous concerts. During the 1950s, Sumac produced a series of lounge music recordings featuring Hollywood-style versions of Incan and South American folk songs, working with the likes of Les Baxter and Billy May. The combination of her extraordinary voice, exotic looks, and stage personality made her a hit with American audiences. Súmac appeared in a Broadway musical, Flahooley, in 1951, as a foreign princess who brings Aladdin’s lamp to an American toy factory to have it repaired. The show’s score was by Sammy Fain and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, but her three numbers were the work of Vivanco with one co-written by Vivanco and Fain.
During the 1950s, Sumac continued to be popular, playing Carnegie Hall, the Roxy Theatre with Danny Kaye, Las Vegas nightclubs and concert tours of South America and Europe. She put out a number of hit albums, such as Mambo! (1954) and Fuego del Ande (1959). Capitol Records, Sumac’s label, recorded the show. Flahooley closed quickly, but the recording continues as a cult classic, in part because it also marked the Broadway debut of Barbara Cook. During the height of Súmac’s popularity, she appeared in the films Secret of the Incas (1954) with Charlton Heston and Robert Young and Omar Khayyam (1957).
She became a U.S. citizen on July 22, 1955. In 1959 she performed Jorge Bravo de Rueda’s classic song “Vírgenes del Sol” on her album Fuego del Ande. In 1957, Súmac and Vivanco divorced, as Vivanco had had twins with another woman. They remarried that same year, but a second divorce followed in 1965. Apparently due to financial difficulties, Yma Súmac and the original Inka Taky Trio went on a world tour in 1961, which lasted for five years. They performed in 40 cities in the Soviet Union, and afterward throughout Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Their performance in Bucharest, Romania, was recorded as the album Recital, her only “live in concert” record. Sumac spent the rest of the 1960s performing sporadically.
In 1971 she released a rock album, Miracles. She performed in concert from time to time during the 1970s in Peru and later in New York at the Chateau Madrid and Town Hall. In the 1980s she resumed her career under the management of Alan Eichler and had a number of concerts both in the United States and abroad, including the Hollywood Roosevelt’s Cinegrill, New York’s Ballroom in 1987 (where she was held-over for seven weeks to SRO crowds) and several San Francisco shows at the Theatre on the Square among others. In 1987, she also recorded the song “I Wonder” from the Disney film Sleeping Beauty for Stay Awake, an album of songs from Disney movies, produced by Hal Willner. She sang “Ataypura” during a March 19, 1987, appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. She recorded a new German “techno” dance record, “Mambo ConFusion”
In 1989 she sang once again at the Ballroom in New York and returned to Europe for the first time in 30 years to headline the BRT’s “Gala van de Gouden Bertjes” New Year’s Eve TV special in Brussels as well as the “Etoile Palace” program in Paris hosted by Frederic Mitterrand. In March 1990, she played the role of Heidi in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, in Long Beach, California, her first attempt at serious theater since Flahooley in 1951. She also gave several concerts in the summer of 1996 in San Francisco and Hollywood as well as two more in Montreal, Canada, in July 1997 as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. In 1992 appeared a documentary for German television entitled Yma Súmac – Hollywoods Inkaprinzessin (Yma Súmac – Hollywood’s Inca Princess).
With the resurgence of lounge music in the late 1990s, Sumac’s profile rose again when the song “Ataypura” was featured in the Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski.
Her song “Bo Mambo” appeared in a commercial for Kahlúa liquor and was sampled for the song “Hands Up” by The Black Eyed Peas. The song “Gopher Mambo” was used in the films Ordinary Decent Criminal, Happy Texas, Spy Games, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, among others. “Gopher Mambo” was used in an act of the Cirque Du Soleil show Quidam. The songs “Goomba Boomba” and “Malambo No. 1” appeared in Death to Smoochy. A sample from “Malambo No.1” was used in Robin Thicke’s “Everything I Can’t Have”. Yma Súmac is also mentioned in the lyrics of the 1980s song “Joe le taxi” by Vanessa Paradis, and her album Mambo! is the record that Belinda Carlisle pulls out of its jacket in the video for “Mad About You”
On May 6, 2006, Sumac flew to Lima, where she was presented the Orden del Sol award by Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo and the Jorge Basadre medal by the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos
Yma Sumac died on November 1, 2008, aged 85 or 86, at an assisted living home in Los Angeles, California, nine months after being diagnosed with colon cancer. She was interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, CA, in the “Sanctuary of Memories” section.
On September 13, 2016, a Google Doodle featured Yma Sumac dressed as a Peruvian songbird (by wikipedia)
Exotica began here in this historic 1950 meeting between the Peruvian “princess” Yma Sumac and Hollywood arranger Les Baxter. Neither Inca royalty nor a Bronx girl named Amy Camus as counter-legend had it, Sumac was raised an upper middle class Peruvian, but gifted with an uncanny multi-octave range. With such a powerful instrument at his disposable, the imaginatively resourceful Baxter proceeded to patch together musical bits and pieces from around the globe–gamelon orchestra, all manner of modal scales, ethnic percussion, impressionistic strings–into a fantasy concoction that has stayed surprisingly fresh after a half a century.
There probably isn’t anything here that wasn’t first heard in Rimsky-Korsakov or Debussy, not to mention Max Steiner whose path-finding score for KING KONG remains the talisman for pop musical journeys to the unknown. Still, Baxter is a skillful orchestrator, especially of strings, and Sumac herself never falters in her tricky wordless improvisations. It was super kitschy stuff at the time and remains so, but retains a certain musical integrity, even timelessness, much like the stone god that hovers scowling above our ersatz princess on the famous album cover. (by cduniverse.com)
Yma Sumac (vocals)
Orchestra conducted by Leslie Baxter
01. Virgin Of The Sun God (Taita Inty) (Vivanco) 3.07
02. High Andes (Ataypura!) (Vivanco) 3.04
03. Chant Of The Chosen Maidens (Accla Taqui) (Baxter) 2.45
04. Earthquake! (Tumpa!) (Vivanco) 3.20
05. Dance Of The Moon Festival (Choladas) (Vivanco) 2.34
06. Dance Of The Winds (Wayra) (Vivanco) 3.02
07. Monkeys (Monos) (Vivanco) 2.40
08. Lure Of The Unknown Love (Xtabay) (Rose/Baxter) 3.19
Peruvian soprano Yma Sumac performs during the 16th edition of the Musical Spring Festival, on May 1, 1992 in Bourges, central France.