Yma Sumac

For today’s listeners, Yma Sumac and her music certainly fit into what one might call “weirdo music.” It was considered that when it first appeared in 1950, although it went by a different name then – "Exotica.” This was a sub-category of popular music hugely popular during the 1950s. Yma Sumac was a Peruvian folk singer who began her career in 1943 successfully promoting her homeland’s folk music in South America and making recordings. Upon her arrival in America in 1946, however, she and her husband/manager Moises Vivanco found it difficult to secure work. Eventually they caught the ear of Capitol Records who then re-dressed the singer into ceremonial garb, created a fanciful biography and presented her to the American public as a Princess of Peru, the last descendant of the ancient Incas. The story was weird but fit in perfectly with the exotic beauty Sumac displayed both physically and vocally. Building on the outré, Capitol encouraged the singer to exploit her already remarkable voice of four octaves to the point that she soon became regarded somewhat as a circus act. The spell of Sumac held strong for about 7 years but after that, despite numerous attempts she never managed to recapture her initial popularity. Even so, she continued to be on the culty fringes of the international music scene and made her final appearance of note with nothing less than the Montreal jazz Festival in 1996. She died on November 1, 2008 at the age of 86.

The Voice
By any standards Yma Sumac’s voice was unusual. During her prime she could call on a full four octaves and she had a timbre of great beauty and elegance - the sound and vocal technique of an operatic soprano, the tart rhythmical dash and inventiveness of a jazz specialist, and her music sat solidly on the side of popular music. She was a singer who could (and did) interest a wide spectrum of people. For many today, her music sounds dated and campy, yet there was genius working there. Despite the passing of time her recordings have sold consistently for almost 60 years, proving that there is a universal appeal when it comes to her voice and way of singing. Her biography was as legendary as her voice, but in the end it is her voice that will remain to startle and delight.

Suggested Recordings
No one should be without the Voice of the Xtabay album which contains two of her earliest North American albums: Voice of the Xtabay (1950 – 8 selections) and Inca Taqui (1953- 8 selections). Nothing in the annals of music equals the unique sound that Sumac manages to create through her voice and the colorful exotica arrangements. Next would definitely be Legend of the Sun Virgin, recorded in 1952 – although it continues in the same vein of exotica, the vocal effects, overdubbing, and operatic pyrotechnics are piled so high that listeners often cannot believe their ears. Some had even erroneously believed that there were two singers recording in the studio. Then, there is Mambo! This is probably one of Sumac’s most popular recordings and with good reason. Here her voice is used as part of an ensemble and all the coloratura high notes – up to the infamous high F, and unique effects (wails, growls, high coloratura staccato, etc) are put to perfect use with the ensemble’s sound. Almost all of Yma Sumac’s recordings are available online from Amazon.com and other online stores. If you haven’t experienced this singer yet, give yourself a treat and get one of her discs and let her take you on a musical journey you will never forget.

Nicholas E. Limansky
Author of Yma Sumac: The Art Behind the Legend

Yma Sumac links

Buy Yma Sumac: The Art Behind the Legend at Amazon.com
Yma Sumac @ Spaceagepop.com
The Yma Sumac Collection
Adoring Yma Sumac
Yma Sumac: the Voice of the Incas
Yma Sumac: Miracles
Buy Yma Sumac CDs at Amazon.com


Yma Sumac - Fuego del Ande

Yma Sumac - Voice of the Xtabay

Yma Sumac - Inca Taqui

Yma Sumac - Legend of the Jivaro

Yma Sumac - Miracles

Yma Sumac - Mambo!