Feeding the needs of an American music industry that often turned to Latin sounds when sales were down, Peruvian-born pop diva Yma Sumac burst onto the music scene in the early 1950s with something audiences outside Latin America had never before heard. With her four-to-five-octave singing range, "exotic" identity, and mysterious origins that were the subject of urban legend, the so-called "Nightingale of the Andes" offered mid-century North American audiences with a break from the ordinary. While the thrust of her commercial success was largely limited to the 1950s, Sumac's recordings and occasional concert tours also earned her a cult following among later generations, who would come to revere this "Inca princess" as a venerable queen of camp.
While there appeared to be a veil of mystery surrounding her true origins (rumormongers said she was from Brooklyn, New York), Zoila Augusta Emperatríz Chavarri del Castillo was born in Peru in the 1920s, probably the youngest of six children, in a relatively comfortable family that made a living from the ownership of various properties. Her father, Sixto Chavarri del Castillo, was of mixed Spanish-Indian origin, while her mother, Ima Sumack Emilia Athualpa, was said to be a "full-blooded Inca Indian" descending directly from the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa. While Sumac's generally accepted birthdate is September 10, 1922, this date has been the subject of debate. Equally shaky is her place of birth: while early biographies (in addition to making her about five years younger) put her place of birth in Ichocán, a tiny town high in the Peruvian Andes, later accounts stated that while her family may have been from Ichocán, she was most likely born and raised elsewhere in Peru.
What is certain is that Sumac's "basso-soprano" voice won attention at an early age for its multi-octave musical range, and she went to study in Lima. Her mother was vehemently opposed to her seeking a future on the stage, preferring that she continue studies to become a teacher. In 1942 she married Moisés Vivanco, director of the Compañía Peruana de Arte, and that same year she began performing on the radio, where her renditions of Peruvian folk music reached audiences throughout Latin America. Vivanco's group reportedly included some 46 singers, musicians and dancers. In 1943 Sumac and the company went to Argentina to record several 78 RPM folk music singles that were released in Peru. In her early performing days she used the stage name "Imma Sumack," presumably in defiance of her mother.
After the Compañía Peruana de Arte was disbanded, Sumac moved to New York City in the late 1940s, where she sang soprano in the newly formed Inca Taky Trio, featuring Vivanco on guitar along with Sumac's cousin Cholita Rivera, who danced and sang contralto. The trio fought an uphill battle in its first years, playing mostly at private parties and at spots such as Greenwich Village's La Parisienne delicatessen. Sumac was finally introduced to the greater public during a performance with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. In 1950 Sumac recorded Voice of the Xtabay, an album that sold more than 500,000 copies. Record company executives changed her recording name, reportedly thinking the name "Yma Sumac" would sound more exotic to the American public. This was followed by a series of successful recordings throughout the decade, including Mambo (1954), Legend of the Jivaro (1957) and Fuego del Ande (1959).
Sumac went on to captivate audiences throughout North America, performing at New York City's Carnegie Hall in 1955 and singing with the symphony orchestras of both Toronto and Montreal. Following her appearance in the Broadway flop Flahooey in 1951, Hollywood attempted to cash in on the Yma Sumac singing phenomenon, casting her in the Paramount films Secret of the Incas (1954) and Omar Khayyam (1957).
"What Miss Sumac might achieve in straight concert, unimpeded by noisy competition is anyone's guess," wrote a reviewer for the Musical Courier, of her Carnegie Hall performance. "Musically, [the production] is more entertaining than cultural…. If there were less distraction offered, and more focussed concentration on the chief artist, Yma Sumac, one would have a better idea of the singer's quality and feel less like the viewer of a 'live' Hollywood production…. Since much recital-going is dull anyway, last night's doings were welcome, if slightly baffling to the staid reviewer."
Like Carmen Miranda, another Brazilian star-turned-Hollywood, Sumac offered American audiences a touch of South-of-the-Border exoticism. But her otherworldly voice made her somehow different. "Yma Sumac's success was based on novelty," wrote John Storm Roberts in his book The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States. "But the more conventional Latin and semi-Latin styles were regarded by the music business as a sure standby in hard times, even before the success of the mambo and chachachas."
Publicists had a field day, building on the images of a mysterious "Inca princess" and "Sun Virgin." It was said that "when a noted musicologist lured her away to school in Lima, 30,000 outraged Indian sun-worshipers made the Andes echo with their wrath…. Because of her weird, wonderful voice and her Inca ancestry, they considered her sacred, calling her Intypa Wawan, Daughter of the Sun," wrote Pathfinder, describing information released by Sumac's publicity agents. In 1955 Picture Week claimed that "medical experts" had decided the star's range was due to "unusual throat construction," while "intrigued scholars" felt it might be "a throwback to pre-12th century when voices had greater range than those of today." What is certain is that Sumac faced the excesses of the celebrity rumor mill. Some critics spread the word that, rather than a Peruvian immigrant, Sumac was actually a Jewish housewife from Brooklyn named Amy Camus (Yma Sumac spelled backwards).
Beyond what is considered a normal soprano voice, Sumac comfortably inhabited the realm of a coloratura soprano, often embellishing her agile voice with imitations of birds or beasts. Her versions of traditional Peruvian folk songs were further colored by elaborate orchestral treatments. While there is some disagreement about the true range of her voice, Sumac was known to move comfortably from B below low C to A above high C (four and a half octaves), often reaching her trademark staccati high D's. She claimed to cover five octaves, and attributed her ability to reach high notes to having been raised at a high altitude in Peru.
While some suggested that this range made her a natural for opera, Sumac felt uninspired by the music. "I like music … that makes me cry or makes me laugh," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1951. "Opera has nothing here (she touched her heart). I like our old Inca folk songs. I like your Negro spirituals and your hillbilly music. That is from the heart." Nonetheless, Sumac's fabricated public image would come to stand in the way of her music.
"During the 1950s, these clever fabrications harmonized with Yma's natural, exotic beauty, shyness when meeting people, and her proudly elegant bearing when on stage," wrote Nicholas Limansky in his book Yma Sumac: The Art Behind the Legend. "Unfortunately, her strange displays of aloofness, coupled with these legends, not only increased the isolation between herself and her audiences but also other performers. She soon became an enigmatic vocal machine beyond human dimension. An oddity."
By the end of the decade Sumac had gone out of vogue in the United States. In the Soviet Union, however, many were eager to see her. In 1961 she appeared before sold-out audiences on a months-long Russian tour. Over the next four years, she toured throughout Asia, Europe and Latin America. After returning to the United States she discovered that American audiences had largely forgotten about her.
For the Record …
Born Zoila Augusta Emperatríz Chavarri del Castillo, c. September 10, 1922, in Ichocán, Cajamarca, Peru; daughter of Sixto Chavarri del Castillo and Ima Sumack Emilia Athualpa; married Moisés Vivanco (a musician) on June 6, 1942 (divorced and remarried); children (with Vivanco): a son, Papuchka.
Began performing before Peruvian audiences at an early age; joined Compañia Peruana de Arte, recorded series of 78 rpm singles, 1943; formed Inca Taky Trio, mid-1940s; introduced to U.S. public at Hollywood Bowl concert, 1950; recorded several albums, 1950-59; appeared in Paramount films Secret of the Incas (1954) and Omar Khayyam (1957); toured Soviet Union, 1961; recorded rock album Miracles, 1971; gave occasional performances, 1970s-1990s.
Addresses: Website—Yma Sumac Official Website: http://www.sunvirgin.com.
In 1971 some old fans in the music business helped Sumac make something of a comeback with the release of the rock album Miracles. Backed by a four-man band of guitar, bass, organ and percussion, and aided by newer recording technology better prepared to capture the range of her voice, Sumac won new admirers. The record was never widely released or publicized, however, reportedly due to the artist's alleged stubborn nature and antagonism toward record company executives. Another resurgence in the late 1980s was complicated by a 1987 television appearance on the David Letterman Show, during which the deprecating humorous style of host Letterman ("who is this woman?") made a mockery of her serious rendition of Ataypura, her first performance of Incan music before an American audience in more than two decades. "The exotic silliness of her Capitol Records discs and her image from [the 1950s] have long since turned Sumac into a nostalgic camp icon, though her vocal gifts remain striking," wrote Variety in 1992. That same year she was featured in a German documentary called Hollywood's Inca Princess, and in the 1990s she was rediscovered by a new generation of American youth in search of "new" sounds. In 1996 Sumac gave performances in San Francisco and Los Angeles, followed by two performances in Montreal in 1997. As of mid-2004 she was reportedly living in the Los Angeles area, with no announced concert plans.
Voice of the Xtabay, Universe, 1950.
Mambo, The Right, 1954.
Legend of the Jivaro, Capitol, 1957.
Fuego del Ande, The Right, 1959.
Miracles, London, 1972.
Roberts, John Storm, Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States, Oxford, 1999.
Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1951.
Musical Courier, March 1955.
Pathfinder, November 11, 1950.
Picture Week, June 18, 1955.
Tages-Anzeiger, August 31, 1973.
Variety, July 9, 1992.
"Yma Sumac," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 5, 2004).
Yma Sumac Official Website, http://www.sunvirgin.com (July 1, 2004).
"Yma Sumac: The Art Behind the Legend," Nicholas E. Limansky, http://www.divalegacy.com (June 30, 2004).
—Brett Allan King