Jerome Shea December 8, 2008 Weekend Wonk
Yma Sumac died a few weeks ago in Los Angeles at the age of 86, a truly unique voice stilled at last. She was born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo in a remote village in Peru. Her father was part Spanish and her mother a full-blooded Incan (in fact, the Peruvian government supported her claim to be descended from the last Incan emperor, Atahualpa). “Yma Sumac” (early on, “Ymma Sumack” or “Ima Sumack”) is a variation on her mother’s name, to which she gave various interpretations.*
Everything about Sumac—her repertoire, her stage presence, her costumes, her heritage, her stories—was exotic, and she relished it. But what topped it all was her astonishing voice, a voice that could span four octaves, from somewhere near baritone to somewhere above what most sopranos are capable of. That is double the range that most singers enjoy, and critics attested that hers was a good and true voice. We are not talking shrieks and growls here (except when, in jungle-influenced pieces, she intended so, being in fact quite remarkable in her timbre). She could sing with the best of them. She was astounding, but she was not a freak.
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, her recordings are readily available. I downloaded a sort of “Best of Yma Sumac” CD and was hooked immediately. The songs are typically South American folk songs, sung in Spanish or in Jivaro, a native Peruvian language. The first cut begins with a kind of keening in a stratospheric register, the melody reminiscent of “Un Bel Di” from Madame Butterfly, and then it shifts smoothly way down to that baritone growl, enjoys itself there a while, almost comedically, and works its way up again gradually until we are back in the high forest canopy and that almost impossible register. Sometime her voice sounds like a very high-pitched flute. I can’t follow the “narrative” (my Jivaro being terribly rusty) but it seems to celebrate the rain forest. Sumac transforms herself from lyrical jungle bird to growling jaguar and back again. She is very good indeed.
In the U.S.A, Sumac was immensely popular in the late ‘40s and the 1950s. I am not sure that I heard her at the time, but I was aware that there was a woman with an unforgettable voice and that her name, also unforgettable, was Yma Sumac. That same period, by the way, was hospitable to some equally strange singers, composers, and musicians, like eden ahbez (“Nature Boy”), Johnnie Ray, whose shtick was a blend of singing and crying, and Korla Pandit , turbaned keyboardist with an enthusiastic following. Ray was also almost completely deaf, and Pandit was born John Roland Redd in St. Louis, which, as any map will show you, is a long way from Calcutta. It seems we were aching for novelty. Maybe this was seen as an antidote to the Eisenhower years: Ike was a good man but the antithesis of exotic.
Exotic is the key word here. The 50s saw the rise of “tiki culture.” All things Polynesian were the rage, from restaurants to vaguely oriental cuisine to drinks (and you can thank tiki culture for sticking that stupid umbrella in your mai-tai) to music. You might be living in a ticky-tacky house in Levittown and you might be driving a four-door Plymouth, but you can turn your basement into a south seas hideaway! You can somehow disguise the furnace, build yourself a bar and bar stools (bamboo, of course), find a couple of primitive looking masks and other objets, and have friends over on a Saturday night. And on the “hi-fi” would be the newest instrumental arrangements from Les Baxter, Martin Denny, or other merchants of tiki. Tiki culture soon spread to include Africa and Latin America, locales seen as equally primitive and romantic. Baxter’s Ritual of the Savage album, an early example (1951) is in fact program music, with cuts like “Busy Port,” “Jungle River Boat,” and the hit song, “Quiet Village.” You could mix up a stiff rum punch, kick back in the recliner, and, as it were, sail away.
Which is where Yma Sumac comes in. Baxter, Denny, and others were dealing in a sort of generic and vague exoticism, but this striking woman from Peru with the otherworldly voice was the real deal! Soon Baxter was doing arranging for her, and she captured the country. Purveyors of tiki culture couldn’t believe their good fortune.
She starred in a mercifully short-lived Broadway musical (Flahooley). She appeared in movies with Charlton Heston (Secret of the Incas), Cornell Wilde (Omar Khayyam) and other macho stars. She headlined in Vegas. She toured worldwide.
Gradually tiki culture subsided and so did her career. She became a cult figure, her name something for Trivial Pursuit. Mentioning that name to anyone under forty will likely result in a resounding silence and a puzzled stare. Rest in peace, Yma Sumac.
*One bizarre story—long discredited, if it could ever have been seriously credited—was that she was actually one “Amy Camus,” a housewife from Brooklyn, “Amy Camus” being “Yma Sumac” spelled backwards.
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