Posted by morlockjeff on November 8, 2008
Yma Sumac, that rarest of exotic songbirds, is now officially an extinct species. She died last Saturday, Nov. 1st in Silver Lake, California, though her passing was barely noticed by the major media despite the fact that her impact on pop culture in the early fifties had an international impact. From her first U.S. album release, “Voice of the XtaBay” (1950), and first Hollywood film SECRETS OF THE INCAS (1954) starring Charlton Heston, to everything that followed in her curious career, Sumac has been many things to many people – an Inca princess, a singer with a five octave range, the diva who ushered in the “Exotica” pop music craze under the direction of Capitol Records maestro Les Baxter, an international superstar who counted Soviet Union premier Nikita Khrushchev and Metropolitan Opera star Jarmila Novotna among her biggest admirers, and a gay icon whose flamboyant stage presence and performance style inspired many a female impersonator. (Obviously she had a great sense of humor about this. In the late eighties during a rare appearance at a New York City nightclub, she judged a Yma Sumac lookalike competition).
The most humorous assumption of all was that she was really a Jewish housewife from Brooklyn named Amy Camus (Yma Sumac backwards) and what started as a joke became a popular urban myth in some quarters.
Although most biographical accounts of her life debuke the Amy Camus rumor (and acknowledge how it began – as a humorous anecdote mentioned in Walter Winchell’s column in the New York Daily Mirror), most people didn’t realize that Sumac really was Peruvian and her real name was Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo. As a young girl, Zoila created a sensation on the radio in Argentina and began recording songs in 1943. She met and later married bandleader Moises Vivanco who formed the group, “The Inka Taky Trio” with her. The trio (which included Yma’s cousin Cholita Rivero who danced and sang contralto to Yma’s soprano) left South America in 1946 to try their luck in New York City, which is when Zoila became known by the stage name she had taken earlier – Imma Sumack (and other variations on it before it morphed into the now familiar Yma Sumac). After some lean years, Sumac’s career really began to soar after her first Hollywood Bowl concert which led to a recording contract with Capitol Records.
I first encountered her music after buying a cutout in a bargain bin at Peaches record store (now out of business) back in the early eighties. The album in question was “Mambo.” One look at the cover and I knew it had to be killer and I wasn’t disappointed. There really isn’t another living female singer with a voice like this. Your first impression might be amazement - like hearing someone speaking in tongues for the first time. My friend Linda’s first impression was that she was hearing a brilliantly gifted schizophrenic, an easy assumption to make when you hear Yma’s voice soar up, up and away into the stratosphere and then drop WAY DOWN into a gutteral growl like some wild animal.
And what language is that? At times it sounds like some form of bastardized Spanish but more often what you hear are sounds like “Aii-yie-yie-yie-yie-yie-yie”, not words. And this is set to Billy May’s swinging, intoxicatingly sensual orchestration with brassy hooks and bass line oomph, guaranteed to turn your living room into a frenzied mambo inferno with you as the gyrating center.
I’m sure seeing Sumac perform the “Mambo” album live with a full Cuban orchestra behind her would be beyond any Yma fan’s wildest fever dream yet it’s no surprise that Hollywood had no clear idea what to do with her when it came calling. For the two films she made for Paramount – SECRET OF THE INCAS (1954) and OMAR KHAYYAM (1957), Sumac was mostly used as exotic window dressing but at least the studio executives had the good sense to exploit her signature singing style in both films.
SECRET OF THE INCAS, which many feel was a direct inspiration for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones with its explorer hero (Charlton Heston) dressed in khakis, fedora and holding a whip, made an ideal showcase for Sumac in a supporting role as Kori-Tica, the sister of an Indian tribal leader who lives in Machu Picchu, near the site of an Inca tomb containing treasure. YouTube offers several clips from the film with the below sequence the most representative of the singing style that made her first U.S. album, “Voice of the XtaBay”, an immediate best-seller that introduced many Americans to “world music” for the first time.
Sumac is not Heston’s love interest in the film – that part is handled by Nicole Maurey – and curiously enough, Heston does not even mention SECRETS OF THE INCAS in either of his two biographies – In the Arena and Charlton Heston, The Actor’s Life. But Yma is given better exposure here in OMAR KHAYYAM and performs the songs of her husband Moises Vivanco which include “Legend of the Sun God,” “Earthquake” and “High Andes.” Paramount should consider releasing this colorful, often forgotten adventure on DVD and capitalize on the Indiana Jones connection. It also bares comparison with another serial-type actioner, Treasure of the Golden Condor (1953), which is set in the lost world of the Mayans and stars Cornel Wilde (who would appear with Yma in OMAR KHAYYAM).
William Dieterle’s pictorially lush but juvenile costume epic from 1957 casts Wilde as Khayyam in a mishmash of court intrigues, assassin cults, and star-crossed romance with recitations from the Rubaiyat sprinkled throughout the faux-Persian settings. Sumac appears in a minor role as Karina, friend to Khayyam’s secret love Sharain (Debra Paget), and gets to perform one number by Vivanco, “Lament” (which is also featured on Sumac’s album “Legend of the Sun Virgin”), but is mostly offscreen during the number as her vocals are used as accompaniment to the ceremonial unveiling of Sharain. It would be Yma’s last Hollywood film but she would go on to star in two Mexican musical film revues, Musica de siempre (1958) and Las Canciones unidas (1960), about which very little is known.
Sumac’s personal life was almost as dramatic as her stage presence and she had a turbulent relationship with her husband Vivanco which ended in a divorce in 1957. Then, she remarried him the same year but obviously problems persisted because they divorced again for good in 1965. Squabbles over music rights and child custody were often alleged reasons for the divorces but a more obvious reason might be infidelity which was the cause of a highly publicized domestic dispute reported by Jack Smith in The Daily Mirror (check out the link below). Apparently the easily excitable bandleader had a hard time keeping little mister Moises in his pants.
For those who would like to sample some of Yma Sumac’s work, Amazon and iTunes offer snippets from most of her albums though I would recommend starting with something from “Mambo” such as the insanely catchy “Gopher” or the entrancing “Five Bottles Mambo” or even the bombastic, over-the-top excitement of “Bo Mambo.” Earlier albums such as “Voice of the Xtabay” and “Legend of the Sun Virgin” take a much more ethnic folk music approach with songs that combine animal sounds and unusual instrumentation with opera-like arias. At the time it was released “Voice of the Xtabay” must have seemed more like an avant-garde novelty than a commercial disc with a singer who was no less bizarre to American listeners than throat singers from Tuva. Yet songs such as “Chuncho” and “Ripupi” (which bears similiarities to Western movie theme music) exert a haunting and undeniable appeal that could become your new addiction. “Montana” from “Legend of the Sun Virgin” is another favorite that could have been a pop novelty hit and its sweeping romanticism and lush balladry would not be out of place in a Walt Disney film. In fact, Walt was a big fan of Sumac’s but never figured out a way to integrate her unique sound into one of his films. Eclectic producer Hal Willner remedied that situation in 1988 with the release of Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films which featured Yma singing “I Wonder” from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
“Miracles,” the so-called rock album Yma released in 1971 and long out of print, is not what most contemporary listeners would label rock. All of the compositions, with one exception, were written and arranged by Les Baxter, the producer Yma first collaborated with at Capitol Records. You’ll most likely find Baxter catalogued under either “Easy Listening” or “Exotica” at your local record story but NOT rock. And this album could only be considered rock in terms of the throbbing bass and rhythmic drumming that accompanies Yma on most of the cuts which accent the sound and tone of her voice and not the lyrics which come from some unclassifiable language. My favorite cut here is her take on “El Condor Pasa” which Simon and Garfunkel made popular but “Look Around” and “Medicine Man” are weirdly compelling.
If you still crave more Yma after sampling the above, you might want to try the live album that was recorded during her Soviet Union tour in 1961, originally released on CD by Eject (the j should appear backwards) and re-issued under the title “Recital.”
Initially Sumac had planned a four week tour of Russia in 1961 but was so popular with audiences that she ended up staying in Russia for 6 months! Here is an amusing anecdote from the liner notes about her amazed reaction to the massive crowds, many of which were Russian soldiers: “Suddenly she noticed the soviet heroes beckoning to her, tearing medals from their chests and holding them out to her. She could hold back the tears no longer. Vainly she tried to dissuade them but they insisted; this was their way of showing their gratitude, love and appreciation. She knelt before them and they filled her hands and arms to overflowing with the glistening metal and bright ribbons that signified their bravery, their diligence, their excellence.”
Maybe Sumac didn’t arouse that same level of frenzied admiration in the U.S. but her influence in pop culture in undeniable. If there is any doubt, take a look at her music credits on IBDB which lists a number of her songs featured in several recent cult films such as The Big Lebowski (1998), Happy, Texas (1999), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), the 2003 remake of The In-Laws and King of California (2007). Yma is no longer with us but her voice will continue to cut through time and space like a cosmic laser beam.
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