Stop The Presses! - Archives

Yma Sumac: Farewell, Chosen Maiden

Stop The Presses!

I know it's something of a cliché to note someone's passing by saying that "there'll never be another [fill in the name]." But hearing the news today of a once-famous singer's death this morning at age 86 in Los Angeles, I think we have one of those instances where you can safely say it: "There'll never be another Yma Sumac."

Just ask the B-52's, or Yoko Ono, or Cyndi Lauper, or any of the many who over the years have been inspired and influenced by the music and image of the ever-mysterious "Nightingale Of The Andes."

It was in 1950 that, without much fanfare, Capitol Records released Songs Of The Xtabay, an album of tunes "based on ancient Peruvian folk music" performed by Yma Sumac--an exotically named, exotically dressed beauty whose nearly five-octave vocal range made her sound much more than simply exotic; positively unearthly was more like it. So was her backstory: Supposedly a descendant of an Inca emperor, Sumac had come to the United States in 1946 after starring in a Lima-based Indian song-and-dance troupe, where she'd met her husband, musician Moises Vivanco. Settling in New York, she began appearing in a variety of venues (including the Catskills Borsch Belt circuit), where her often trancelike singing usually left audiences agog.

"Discovered" a few years later by West Coast-based Capitol, Sumac's Xtabay album showcased a voice that, as one classical music critic would later note, "warbles like a bird in the uppermost regions, hoots like an owl in the lowest registers, produced bell-like coloratura passages one minute, and dusky contralto tones the next." It quickly zoomed to the top of the charts, and made Yma Sumac a "overnight sensation."

Throughout the early-to-mid '50s, her career blossomed, with sold-out concert tours, Broadway and Vegas showcases, and even a few movie roles, including Secret Of The Incas (1954), an Indiana Jones-prefiguring action adventure film where she appeared alongside Charlton Heston:

Like many stars from this era, the rock 'n' roll revolution eclipsed Yma Sumac's star, although thanks to artists like the aforementioned B-52's and Lauper, interest in Sumac did generate a brief and memorable comeback in the 1980s.

Her career was not without controversy: During her heyday, there were nagging rumors that she wasn't any Peruvian princess, but rather just a Brooklyn housewife named Amy Camus whose enterprising husband had concocted the entire attention-grabbing story. Of course, even if that were true--and outside of the lineage part, and her real name (Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo), it does appear that the rest of the biography is pretty accurate--nothing, and we mean nothing, can take away from the unimpeachable majesty, and mystery, that was Yma Sumac.

Farewell, chosen maiden.

View Comments