Her albums were in my parental unit’s LP collection. As a teenager, I dreamed of hosting a party where the guests were: Yma Sumac, Ava Gardner, Oona O’Neill, Ida Lupino, Aga Khan, Eva Gabor, and Uta Hagen. Complications would arise as I made introductions: “Yma, Uta; Yma, Ava; Yma, Oona; Yma, Ida; Yma, Aga; Yma, Eva.”
She burst on to the pop music scene in the early 1950s like a vision from some sort of fantastical past: a Sun Virgin, an Incan Princess, the Voice of the Xtabay. Her voice was one of the marvels of the Eisenhower era. Yma Sumac was a living, breathing, technicolor musical fantasy, a kaleidoscopic dream of MGM-style exotica come to life in an era of wholesome practicality.
Despite the rumors cooked up by some press agent, she was not a Brooklyn actor named Amy Camus whose name, when spelled backward, became mysteriously fascinating. Yma Sumac was the real thing.
She wowed international audiences in the 1950s with her stunning vocal range and modern take on South American folk music, her exotic beauty, elaborate costumes and a singing voice that could imitate the cries of birds and wild animals.
Details remain murky about the raven-haired singer. She was surrounded by rumors about her life and origins, many of them myths of her own making. She said she was born in 1927, but it was probably 1922. Sumac’s birth name was Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo. She said she was born in Cajamarca, Peru.
Sumac claimed to be a descendant of the Inca emperor Atahualpa, and she played up her Andean origins. Dubbed the “Peruvian Songbird” and the “Nightingale of the Andes,” Sumac’s soaring, warbling five-octave voice was matched by her flamboyant wardrobe, studded with gold and silver jewelry designed to make her look like an Incan princess.
In 1942, Sumac married Moises Vivanco, a composer and bandleader who was captivated by her voice. That same year, she first appeared on the radio. They toured as The Inca Taky Trio. In 1951, Vianco told the AP:
“She is five singers in one. Never in 2,000 years has there been another voice like hers.”
Her first album for Capitol Records, Voice Of The Xtabay (1951) sold half a million copies and launched a decade of fame that included memorable performances at Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall, and the Hollywood Bowl in an era when American audiences were zany for all things “exotic”.
In 1951, Sumac appeared in the Yip Harburg / Sammy Fain Broadway musical Flahooley, playing an Arab princess, and she appeared in the films Secret Of The Incas (1954), with Charlton Heston in his first major role, and Omar Khayyam (1957) with Cornel Wilde.
In 1959, she divorced her husband after he faced a paternity suit brought by his secretary who had given birth to his twins. Sumac remarried him in 1961, but they soon broke up again.
She traveled the world singing with major symphony orchestras, and in 1961 she toured the Soviet Union.
Her fame faded by the late 1960s. Trying to keep up with the times, she released a rock album called Yma Rocks! in 1971, her first album in 13 years. Nobody bought it. However, her work continued to be feature in soundtracks for films, and considered the height of “camp”, she acquired a big gay following.
Sumac was rediscovered by lounge music fans in the 1990s, and her music appeared on compilation albums and more movie soundtracks including The Big Lebowski (1998).
In our current century, her songs were featured on Mad Men, Claws, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, in a lipsync between Jinkx Monsoon and Detox.
In 1999, she had a run of several weeks at The Ballroom in New York City where her stage set was decorated with Incan statues. Sumac:
“I was greeted by young boys screaming. I was shocked. But they explained to me that it was because they adore Yma Sumac. All the big stars come to see Yma Sumac. What is the name of that one, I think Madonna?”
Bruce Springsteen declared:
“It takes only a fraction of a second to succumb to her unique voice.”
She lived in Los Angeles in her final decade and had few friends. She was reclusive and untrusting and lived a very solitary life. She took her final bow in 2008, taken by cancer at what was probably 86-years-old.