The Aardvark Speaks : essence, effervescence, obscurity. Established 2002. A weblog by Horst Prillinger. ISSN 1726-5320


November 03, 2008

Yma Sumac R.I.P.

Yma Sumac - Voice of the XtabayYma Sumac, one of the most unique and original singers of the 1950s passed away last Saturday aged 86. Born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo in Peru in 1922, she was first noticed by a larger public in 1950, when her debut recording Voice of the Xtabay was released. The unsuspecting listener was not only confronted by lush orchestral arrangements conceived by the "king of easy listening" Les Baxter, but also by unprecedented vocal acrobatics. Sumac's voice had a range of four and a half octaves (she herself claimed to have five), and the record was clearly designed to showcase this incredible range in each and every song. Baxter managed to create a pseudo-exoticism that was on the one hand immediately recognizable as American, but that still carried a strange otherworldly flavour, which was further augmented by the claim that Sumac was actually an Inca princess. Together with the liner notes, which explained that "xtabay" was the primal female energy, the album was a stylized product of mythical exotic femininity. Voice of the Xtabay became a huge success; it is the only record that was never deleted from the Capitol catalogue since its first release in 1950.

Yma Sumac - MamboThe success of Voice of the Xtabay led to other records; none of them was quite a match for the debut, but they still kept up the atmosphere of unrestrained exoticism and gave ample room to Sumac's vocal acrobatics. Inca Taqui from 1952, which further built on Sumac's alleged Inca heritage (which in turn led to the rumour that her real name was Amy Camus and that she was in reality a housewife from Brooklyn), was followed in 1954 by Mambo!, a crazy set of -- as the title suggests - eight fiery mambos, arranged by Billy May using brass sharper than a sane ear could bear and sung by Sumac in multiple voices reminiscent of anything between the Muppet Show and the Queen of the Night from Mozart's Magic Flute. It's more mambo that a sane person can stand, but it's an unique experience packaged inside a fantastic record cover.

Yma Sumac - Legend of the JivaroSumac's success seemed to decline somewhat towards the late 1950s. Later recordings, such as Legend of Jivaro, whose liner notes claimed that Sumac and her husband Moises Vivanco had travelled to the Amazonian jungle and studied the music of the Jivaro, a tribe of savage headhunters, are lacking both the tightness and the novelty factor of earlier recordings; in fact the album cover of the Inca princess among the headhunters is slightly more appealing than the music. Still, even though record sales decreased, Sumac toured regularly through the United States and other countries, and her stage presence was legendary, even when her vocal range decreased with age. She retired in the 1980s, claiming to have moved to Peru (which was not true; she lived in Los Angeles), but appeared occasionally on stage, even at age 75 at the 1997 Montreal Jazz Festival.

Yma Sumac, the "nightingale of the Andes", born September 13, 1922, died November 1, 2008.

Posted by Horst on November 3, 2008 02:17 PM to reviews | Tell-a-friend
Comments
Jann said on November 3, 2008 07:15 PM:

A fitting tribute to a unique and great lady. The LA times has a nice obituary in today's edition.

dieter said on November 4, 2008 10:25 AM:

Yet another singer I have never heard of. From what you are writing, Horst, the Mambo album must be about as sick as the cover seems to me when I have a closer look, and the head hunter cover clearly reminds me of the highlight of Hollywood colonialism (like King Solomon's Mines) I was so fond of in my early youth...

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