Sumac, Yma (1927—)

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Sumac, Yma (1927—)

Peruvian-born singer who was noted for her incredible range of four octaves. Born Emperatriz Chavarri on September 10, 1927, in the highland village of Ichocan, Peru; sixth child of Imma (Sumack Emilia Atahualpa) Chavarri and Sixto Chavarri; attended the Instituto de Santa Teresa, a Catholic school for girls in Lima; married Moises Vivanco (a musician and composer), on June 6, 1942 (divorced 1958); children: one son, Papuchka ("Charlie").

Peruvian singer Yma Sumac, whose four-octave vocal range and exotic repertoire brought her world renown during the 1950s and 1960s, was born Emperatriz Chavarri in a small mountain town north of Lima, Peru. A participant in local festivals as a child, she was discovered by a government official who passed news of her remarkable voice on to Moises Vivanco, a musician, composer, and the director of the Peruvian National Board of Broadcasting, who took over management of her singing career. Sumac became part of his performing troupe, Moises' Compañia, and with them made her radio debut early in 1942. She and Vivanco were married that same year, after which they toured with the troupe in Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City. In 1946, after paring down the troupe considerably, Vivanco and Sumac, along with her cousin Cholita Rivero , arrived in New York, where they began performing as the Inca Taky Trio.

Sumac was not the immediate success in the United States that her husband had hoped. Bookings were few and far between, and the couple endured four lean years, during which Sumac gave birth to her son, Papuchka ("Charlie"). Sumac's break came when a promoter from Capitol Records saw her perform in a New York nightclub and was intrigued by her unique voice and repertoire. In 1950, Capitol produced her first album, Voice of Xtabay, which featured melodies in the Quechua Indian language and was an instant bestseller (as were subsequent albums Mambo and Legend of the Sun Virgins). With Sumac's first successful recording came a flood of creative publicity surrounding her background. She was described variously as a Brooklynite who spelled her name Amy Camus backwards, and as an authentic Inca princess. One particularly imaginative writer proclaimed her one of the chosen "Golden Virgins," a sun worshiper, whose singing was controlled by Indian sorcerers who evoked the spirits of birds and jaguars from her throat.

Sumac went on to play an Arabian princess in the Broadway musical Flahooley (1951) and also appeared in two Hollywood films: Secret of the Incas (1954) and Omar Khayyam (1957). She performed in concert at the Hollywood Bowl, Constitution Hall in Washington, and New York's Carnegie Hall, among other venues. Her repertoire, composed mostly by her husband, included ancient Andean folk themes as well as arias from The Magic Flute, Lakmé, and La Traviata. In performance, the singer accentuated her exotic appearance, dressing in native costume and bedecking herself in heavy Peruvian silver and gold jewelry. Reviewing her concert at Carnegie Hall for the New York Herald Tribune (February 18, 1954), Virgil Thomson found her voice beautiful and her technique impeccable. "She sings very low and warm, very high and bird-like; and her middle range is no less lovely than the extremes of her scale. That scale is very close to four octaves, but it is in no way inhuman or outlandish in sound."

In 1957, Sumac went through a well-publicized divorce from her husband, after which her career went into decline. She toured Europe during the 1960s, but an American comeback in 1968 never materialized. A 1972 recording of rock 'n' roll also failed, as did an attempt at country-western. After a number of years spent living and occasionally performing in Peru, Sumac (an American citizen since 1955) returned to the U.S., where she now lives in the Los Angeles area. She gave several concerts in New York and San Francisco during the 1980s, and acted in a revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies in Long Beach, California, in early 1990. In 1997, then almost 70, Sumac performed at the Montreal International Jazz Festival.


Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography Yearbook 1955. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1955.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of…? 4th series. NY: Crown, 1973.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts