Imagine you’re seated in Royal Albert Hall in London. You look to the stage and see a woman in a glamorous, feathered skirt. Her headpiece crowns her like royalty, and her neck drips with jewels that glow in the dim lights of the hall. When she opens her mouth, you wonder, “Is that a canary?” But you are witnessing none other than soprano Yma Sumac.
Nicknamed the “Peruvian Songbird,” Yma Sumac had an inimitable voice and striking style of performing that were fascinating and mysterious to audiences of her time. She was born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo, and there are different tales of the soprano and her beginnings. Some say she was a descendent of the last Incan king, Atahualpa, while others rumored that she was actually an anagram for a Brooklyn singer named Amy Camus.
Yma Sumac’s career took off in the wake of the rising popularity of exotica lounge music in post-war North America. Some of the earliest and most successful exotica recordings came from Sumac and Les Baxter.
The exotic was central to the music of Les Baxter, as well as the work of many composers who predate him. Opera audiences, in particular, could travel to another time and place through music and other production elements. Many operas rely upon stereotypical imagery, extravagant costumes, and “exotic sounds” – but they may have little or nothing to do with the cultures they are representing.
One way composers and performers have created “exotic sounds” is by including vocal sounds that mimic animals and instruments, or non-lexical vocables (also referred to simply as vocables). In Bizet’s Carmen, the title character sings an entire piece, based on the non-lexical vocables “la la la.” (Hear mezzo-soprano Giulietta Simionato sing this section of the score on YouTube.) We also hear non-lexical vocables in Eartha Kitt’s purring, Ella Fitzgerald’s scatting, and the work countless other artists, including Yma Sumac.
Other singers who arose with the growing popularity of exotica music in the 1950s and 1960s included Leda Annest, Elisabeth Waldo, Bas Sheva (who, like Sumac, also worked with Les Baxter), Ethel Azama, and Sondi Sodsai: all of whom used non-lexical vocables in their music.
Yma Sumac arrived in New York in 1946, and her career had a slow start because of certain expectations that audiences in the United States had of her, the exotic other, as a performer. Under the management of her husband Moisés Vivanco, Sumac began to transform her character into one that would harmonize with North American ideas of exoticism.
As Sumac changed her public persona, she was branded as “a descendant of the last of the Incan Kings” who “spent her childhood literally ‘talking’ with the birds, the beasts, the winds, the sound of life and nature.” These tales did not sit well with many Peruvians, who balked at the picture this painted of an idealized, primitive Peru. To other Peruvians, the tales of powerful Incan ancestry simply seemed implausible.
Despite the sometimes mixed reception she received, her talent was undeniable. While some audiences were fascinated by the elements of exotica in her performance style, it was the sheer brilliance of Sumac’s voice that enthralled the world. Some say that Yma’s vocal range was four octaves, and others, including Yma herself, contended that it was in fact five.
Sumac gained the attention of curious onlookers and acclaimed musicians alike. Virgil Thomson once wrote of Sumac, “She sings very low and warm, very high and birdlike; and her middle range is no less lovely than the extremes of her scale…”
Her talents took her everywhere from Hollywood to Moscow. In the 1960s, Sumac performed in venues throughout the U.S.S.R.: she performed for 10 consecutive nights at the Tchaikovsky Opera House and for another 30 evenings at the Lenin Stadium. In the video below, watch Yma Sumac performing Vasili Soloviov-Sedói’s “Noches de Moscú” (“Moscow Nights”) live with the Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra in Moscow in 1960.
Sumac, who could be classified as a coloratura soprano, had a manner of public presentation that was as singular as her voice. She wore extravagant gowns and Peruvian jewelry. She liked to ride around in a pink and black Cadillac with gold rims.
Although the diva passed away in 2008, her legacy lives on. Luckily for modern audiences, we can appreciate her art through her many recordings and appearances in film. Sumac was featured in The Secret of the Incas, the 1954 exotica film by Jerry Hopper, which inspired the Indiana Jones film series. In The Secret of the Incas, Sumac sang “Taita Inty (Virgin of the Sun God)”, “Tumpa (Earthquake)”, and “Ataypúra (High Andes)”, all originally recorded for her 1950 album Voice of the Xtabay. Curiously the scenes featuring the Peruvian singer were shot in Hollywood while the rest of the film was shot on-site in Macchu Picchu. In the video below watch Yma Sumac performing one of her most famous songs, “Tumpa,” in The Secret of the Incas.