Sumac, Yma (1927–)

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Sumac, Yma (1927–)

Yma Sumac (b. 10 September 1927), Peruvian-born singer, noted for the extraordinary range of her voice and her exotic stage presence. Sumac was born in Ichocan, a small mountain village in Peru. Her parents named her Emperatriz Chavarri, but she chose a variation of her mother's name when she began her singing career.

When she was little more than a child she was heard singing in a local festival by an official from Lima. He persuaded her parents to bring her to the capital, where she could be presented in concert while continuing her education at a convent school. In Lima Sumac met her husband, Moises Vivanco, a composer, musician, and the director of the Peruvian National Board of Broadcasting. He cast her as the star of his musical group, the Compania Peruana de Arte. After a successful career in Latin America, in 1946 Sumac and Vivanco moved to the United States. Sumac became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1955.

Sumac struggled to advance her career in the United States. With the 1950 release of her first album for Capitol Records, Voice of Xtabay (a nonsense word coined by the recording company to underscore Sumac's Incan roots), she caught the public's attention. Her popularity reached its climax in the early 1950s. Her records sold over a million copies. She appeared on television, in a minor Broadway musical, and appeared in the films Secret of the Incas (1954) and Omar Khayyam (1957).

Sumac's music, much of it written by her husband, was based on ancient Peruvian folk music. It was adapted to showcase her remarkable fouroctave voice, and her ability to evoke the sounds of jaguars and Andean birds. Sumac also performed in opera houses in Europe and South America, singing roles in The Magic Flute, Lakmé, and La Traviata. After a hiatus of several years, Sumac returned to American music clubs in the 1970s and 1980s. She received good reviews and a modest popularity that did not match her earlier acclaim. In 1992, she was the subject of a documentary by German filmmaker Günther Czernetsky, "Yma Sumac—Hollywood's Inca Princess." In July 1997, she performed in Montreal at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. In 2006, she was awarded the "Orden del Sol" by Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, and the Jorge Basadre medal by the Universidad Mayor de San Marcos.

See alsoMusic: Popular Music and Dance .


Hayward, Philip. Widening the Horizon: Exoticism in Post-War Popular Music. Sydney, Australia: John Libbey, 1999.

Krause, Anna-Bianca. Apropos Yma Sumac. Frankfurt, Germany: Neue Kritik, 2001.

Schnabel, Tom. Stolen Moments: Conversations with Contemporary Musicians. Los Angeles: Acrobat Books, 1988.

                                        Sheila Hooker