Yma Sumac Biography

Emperatriz Chavarri, 10 September 1927, Ichocan, Peru. A flamboyant singer, of striking appearance, who was the subject of a series of publicity campaigns designed to shroud her origins in mystery: was she an Inca princess, one of the chosen ‘Golden Virgins’? Or a Brooklyn housewife named Amy Camus (Yma Sumac spelt backwards)? Whatever the doubts as to her heritage, what was abundantly genuine was Sumac’s four octave range, ascending from ‘female baritone, through lyric soprano, to high coloratura’. Reportedly, she was the sixth child of an Indian mother and a mixed Indian and Spanish father, and was raised a Quechuan. After performing in local Indian festivals, she moved with her family to Lima, and joined the Compania Peruana de Arte, a group of 46 Indian dancers, singers and musicians. In 1942, Sumac married the Compania’s leader, musician and composer Moises Vivanco, and four years later, travelled to New York with him and her cousin, Cholita Rivero, as the Inca Taqui Trio. In the late 40s the Trio played nightclubs such as New York’s Blue Angel, and appeared on radio programmes and Arthur Godfrey’s television show. Other work included an eight-week tour of the Borscht Circuit in the Catskill mountains.

Signed to Capitol Records, Sumac’s first album, Voice Of The Xtabay, was released in 1950. It featured Sumac ‘imitating birds and kettledrums, and singing a selection of strangely compelling songs, such as ‘Chant Of The Chosen Maidens’ and ‘Virgin Of The Sun God’, which were written for her by Moises Vivanco, and based on ancient Peruvian folk music’. With only the advantage of minimum publicity (at first), and the notorious ‘phoney biography’, the 10-inch album sold half a million copies ‘overnight’. It was followed by several more in the same vein, and led to an enormously successful concert appearance at the Hollywood Bowl. In 1951, Sumac made her Broadway debut in the short-lived musical Flahooley, singing three songs written for her by Vivanco ‘with no lyrics and no real relevance to the story’.

During the 50s Sumac continued to be popular, playing Carnegie Hall, the Roxy Theatre with Danny Kaye, Las Vegas nightclubs and concert tours of South America and Europe. She also appeared in the movie Secret Of The Incas (1954), with Charlton Heston and Robert Young. By the end of the decade she was beginning to be regarded by some as passé, and, eventually, as a ‘nostalgic camp icon’. She retired in the early 60s, but is reported to have performed in 1975 at the Chateau Madrid club in Manhattan. In 1987, she hit the comeback trail with a three-week engagement at New York’s Ballroom, and a year later, gained favourable reviews in Los Angeles for ‘charming and frequently breathtaking performance’. In her set she featured well-known Latin songs such as ‘La Molina’ as well as the ethereal material ‘that I recorded for Capitol 2, 000 years ago!’. In 1992, a German documentary film, Yma Sumac: Hollywood’s Inkaprinzessin, mapped out her exotic career, and attempted to examine her remarkable range with the aid of computer technology. The lady herself declined to co-operate with the venture, thereby leaving the mystery, and the legend, intact.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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