“They Say I Am Legend” – YMA SUMAC

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.  

Yma Sumac & husband/bandleader Moises Vivanco

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.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeFy9S0MKp4]

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.

 http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/thedailymirror/2007/04/incaredible.html

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.” 

http://www.amazon.com/Recital-Yma-Sumac/dp/B000J3Q0NE/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1226166489&sr=1-4

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.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxkeUR_1guA&feature=related]

33 Responses “They Say I Am Legend” – YMA SUMAC
Posted By Jenni, St. Louis : November 8, 2008 6:47 pm

An interesting blog on a singer I had never heard of before. Thank you for the info and the clips of Yma singing. Her trilling on the high notes does remind me of a bird, a beautiful voice. I want to go out and do two things: find Mambo and listen to it, and rent Secret of the Incas, a Charleton Heston movie I never saw or heard of.

Posted By Jenni, St. Louis : November 8, 2008 6:47 pm

An interesting blog on a singer I had never heard of before. Thank you for the info and the clips of Yma singing. Her trilling on the high notes does remind me of a bird, a beautiful voice. I want to go out and do two things: find Mambo and listen to it, and rent Secret of the Incas, a Charleton Heston movie I never saw or heard of.

Posted By Gayle : November 8, 2008 10:28 pm

Good summary on Yma Sumac but the New York Times did publish her obituary within a couple of days of her death and there was wire service on her as well.

Posted By Gayle : November 8, 2008 10:28 pm

Good summary on Yma Sumac but the New York Times did publish her obituary within a couple of days of her death and there was wire service on her as well.

Posted By Medusa : November 9, 2008 9:27 am

Glad to see this tribute to her here! I figured you might do one! They ran a decent obit of her in The Globe & Mail up here in Canada with a picture. I love the idea of her as a now extinct unique species…very fitting for such a rare bird!

Posted By Medusa : November 9, 2008 9:27 am

Glad to see this tribute to her here! I figured you might do one! They ran a decent obit of her in The Globe & Mail up here in Canada with a picture. I love the idea of her as a now extinct unique species…very fitting for such a rare bird!

Posted By morlockjeff : November 9, 2008 10:04 am

Gayle, I did see the NYT obit but was hoping to see more entertainment web site coverage such as Entertainment Weekly (ew.com), Rolling Stone, People, Ain’t It Cool news…but nothing. I would really like to see that 1991 German documentary on her by Gunther Czernetsky and there is a recent book on her too – YMA SUMAC: THE ART BEHIND THE LEGEND – by Nicholas E. Limansky which was published in April.

Posted By morlockjeff : November 9, 2008 10:04 am

Gayle, I did see the NYT obit but was hoping to see more entertainment web site coverage such as Entertainment Weekly (ew.com), Rolling Stone, People, Ain’t It Cool news…but nothing. I would really like to see that 1991 German documentary on her by Gunther Czernetsky and there is a recent book on her too – YMA SUMAC: THE ART BEHIND THE LEGEND – by Nicholas E. Limansky which was published in April.

Posted By RHS : November 9, 2008 10:51 am

I hadn’t heard that she died, so I’m very sorry to hear this. I knew very little about Sumac’s life, so your bio made for very interesting reading, Jeff. That “Amy Camus” thing is a riot! And what a driving license she must have had: Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo… holy frijoles!

Posted By RHS : November 9, 2008 10:51 am

I hadn’t heard that she died, so I’m very sorry to hear this. I knew very little about Sumac’s life, so your bio made for very interesting reading, Jeff. That “Amy Camus” thing is a riot! And what a driving license she must have had: Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo… holy frijoles!

Posted By Crystal : November 9, 2008 8:07 pm

Did not know she died so recently. Love her gopher song! It was used in an episode of “Mad Men” — a testament to how timeless she is!

Posted By Crystal : November 9, 2008 8:07 pm

Did not know she died so recently. Love her gopher song! It was used in an episode of “Mad Men” — a testament to how timeless she is!

Posted By Suzi Doll : November 9, 2008 8:18 pm

I was not familiar with this singer-actress, but I had heard of the Heston film SECRET OF THE INCAS. I like the connection you made to Indiana Jones; it makes me want to check out this film. Nice job.

Posted By Suzi Doll : November 9, 2008 8:18 pm

I was not familiar with this singer-actress, but I had heard of the Heston film SECRET OF THE INCAS. I like the connection you made to Indiana Jones; it makes me want to check out this film. Nice job.

Posted By Stacia : November 10, 2008 5:43 am

Great article on a great lady. I’ve been listening to Yma’s music for a few years now, ever since I got turned on to some bachelor pad and lounge music radio stations. She has an absolutely unearthly voice.

Posted By Stacia : November 10, 2008 5:43 am

Great article on a great lady. I’ve been listening to Yma’s music for a few years now, ever since I got turned on to some bachelor pad and lounge music radio stations. She has an absolutely unearthly voice.

Posted By Franko : November 10, 2008 2:21 pm

Yes, she was incredible. I am surprised that more coverage was not given on her passing. Her species is indeed now extinct. How sad.

Posted By Franko : November 10, 2008 2:21 pm

Yes, she was incredible. I am surprised that more coverage was not given on her passing. Her species is indeed now extinct. How sad.

Posted By JAMES BYRNE : November 11, 2008 5:29 am

Great tribute to a fabulous talent. Here’s a weird bit of trivia – Yma Sumac appeared in SECRET OF THE INCAS with Charlton Heston, who a year later played Moses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Yma Sumac’s husband was Moises Vivanco (Spanish for Moses) who had an affair with their secretary. She became pregnant and gave birth to twins born on 4 Oct 1954, the birhday of Charlton Heston.

I have a website devoted to SECRET OF THE INCAS, where you can view the movie, listen to the radio broadcast, read about my trip to Peru, and read articles on Heston and Yma Sumac. There are also hundreds of colour photos from the movie. Find it here-

http://www.secretoftheincas.co.uk

Posted By JAMES BYRNE : November 11, 2008 5:29 am

Great tribute to a fabulous talent. Here’s a weird bit of trivia – Yma Sumac appeared in SECRET OF THE INCAS with Charlton Heston, who a year later played Moses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Yma Sumac’s husband was Moises Vivanco (Spanish for Moses) who had an affair with their secretary. She became pregnant and gave birth to twins born on 4 Oct 1954, the birhday of Charlton Heston.

I have a website devoted to SECRET OF THE INCAS, where you can view the movie, listen to the radio broadcast, read about my trip to Peru, and read articles on Heston and Yma Sumac. There are also hundreds of colour photos from the movie. Find it here-

http://www.secretoftheincas.co.uk

Posted By morlockjeff : November 11, 2008 12:54 pm

James,

Your web site is amazing. A genuine shrine to the film SECRET OF THE INCAS. I think all of us can point back to some film in our childhood that had a profound effect on us, regardless of whether or not it’s on AFI’s top 100 list or some other classic movie poll. For me, it’s The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney, Jr.

Posted By morlockjeff : November 11, 2008 12:54 pm

James,

Your web site is amazing. A genuine shrine to the film SECRET OF THE INCAS. I think all of us can point back to some film in our childhood that had a profound effect on us, regardless of whether or not it’s on AFI’s top 100 list or some other classic movie poll. For me, it’s The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney, Jr.

Posted By JAMES BYRNE : November 12, 2008 12:38 pm

morlockjeff,
I Thank you for the most welcome praise. THE WOLF MAN was also one of my childhood favourites. Great movie.

Posted By JAMES BYRNE : November 12, 2008 12:38 pm

morlockjeff,
I Thank you for the most welcome praise. THE WOLF MAN was also one of my childhood favourites. Great movie.

Posted By jean marc : December 13, 2008 6:11 am

hi james
I’ve just seen your website on secret its grand
i can’t just undertstand why paramount never issued a dvd of it
as for me I had the chance to see yma live she gave a concert at a festival
in france called “le printemps de bourges” may 1th 1992 despite her age she
was about seventy she was still fantastic
sincerly
jean marc

Posted By jean marc : December 13, 2008 6:11 am

hi james
I’ve just seen your website on secret its grand
i can’t just undertstand why paramount never issued a dvd of it
as for me I had the chance to see yma live she gave a concert at a festival
in france called “le printemps de bourges” may 1th 1992 despite her age she
was about seventy she was still fantastic
sincerly
jean marc

Posted By John Wilson : December 20, 2008 6:44 pm

I was a big fan of Yma Sumac’s when I was a teenager. One time my friends and I drove to Kansas City where we saw her in concert. Very Impressive! The show featured a whole stage full of Inca dancers and musicians. Beautiful Music! The movie, Secret of the Incas was a disapointment however since Yma was only on for a breif moment in this otherwise forgettable movie.

There was so much rich music in the fifties. The media today would have you think that the popular music scene back then was a wasteland until rock ‘n’ roll came along. Not at all true! There was Belafonte and The Weavers, and Mario Lanza and much, much more. Unfortunately, the media has forgotten this for political reasons. Our media masters prefer to devide us into young and old, rich and poor, sophisticated and prestine in order to control us better. Popular world Folk music was the music that died, not rock ‘n’ roll.

Posted By John Wilson : December 20, 2008 6:44 pm

I was a big fan of Yma Sumac’s when I was a teenager. One time my friends and I drove to Kansas City where we saw her in concert. Very Impressive! The show featured a whole stage full of Inca dancers and musicians. Beautiful Music! The movie, Secret of the Incas was a disapointment however since Yma was only on for a breif moment in this otherwise forgettable movie.

There was so much rich music in the fifties. The media today would have you think that the popular music scene back then was a wasteland until rock ‘n’ roll came along. Not at all true! There was Belafonte and The Weavers, and Mario Lanza and much, much more. Unfortunately, the media has forgotten this for political reasons. Our media masters prefer to devide us into young and old, rich and poor, sophisticated and prestine in order to control us better. Popular world Folk music was the music that died, not rock ‘n’ roll.

Posted By James Byrne : January 3, 2009 7:12 am

I have to disagree with John Wilson when he called SECRET OF THE INCAS a disappointment and a forgettable movie. I saw in on a re-release in 1963 and it had a great impact on me, especially the voice of Yma Sumac, and the amazing scenery. SECRET OF THE INCAS must have made an impression on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, for they ‘borrowed’ huge chunks of the Heston movie to make the Indiana Jones series.

Posted By James Byrne : January 3, 2009 7:12 am

I have to disagree with John Wilson when he called SECRET OF THE INCAS a disappointment and a forgettable movie. I saw in on a re-release in 1963 and it had a great impact on me, especially the voice of Yma Sumac, and the amazing scenery. SECRET OF THE INCAS must have made an impression on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, for they ‘borrowed’ huge chunks of the Heston movie to make the Indiana Jones series.

Posted By Eugenia Toledo-keyser : May 1, 2009 7:50 pm

I grow up listenning this woman in Chile.
I have loved her voice since then.
Thank you for the information and
the beautiful photos, clips, etc.

Posted By Eugenia Toledo-keyser : May 1, 2009 7:50 pm

I grow up listenning this woman in Chile.
I have loved her voice since then.
Thank you for the information and
the beautiful photos, clips, etc.

Posted By Hugo : September 22, 2016 5:51 am

Thanks for posting such a nice and documented site about our Peruvian Inca Princess Yma Sumac. Her life and achievements are so Amazing that I Think a Movie based on Her early beginnings in The Highlands of Cajamarca to The World Success she achieved in The 1950′s Would be an interésting way to pay homage to a very Unique and sometímes missunderstood- specially in My country- Singer and Performer, I hope some Day this could come true, because She deserved it.

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