Sunday, September 10, 2006

Voice of the Xtabay

Yma Sumac was born Zoila Emperatriz Chavarri Sumac del Castillo on this day in 1927 in Ichocan in the Peruvian Andes.

Blessed with an amazing 5+ octave vocal range -- from deep contralto to coloratura high Cs -- Sumac cut an unusual swath in the international pop music scene from the 1940s through the 1960s. Allegedly a descendant (through her mother's side) of the last Inca king, Atahualpa (an assertion "certified" by the Peruvian government), Sumac was discovered as a pre-teen by a Peruvian bureaucrat and began singing concerts in Peru. As a national heroine with a royal pedigree, Sumac was adopted by Andeans from her native region as the embodiment of an old prophecy that the sun god, Accla Taqui, would anoint a golden virgin who would reform the world to the Inca faith with her clarion voice -- a popular groundswell which would ultimately fuel her American publicists.

At 13, she married an aspiring composer/musician, Moises Vivenco, who managed her career, putting her on Radio Belgrano in Argentina and touring her throughout Latin America. Despite the protests of 30,000 marching Andeans who pleaded with her not to leave, she emigrated to the U.S. in 1947, and after some false starts played at Carnegie Hall and sang with orchestras in Montreal, Toronto and at Hollywood Bowl.

Although composer Virgil Thomson suggested she should sing grand opera, instead she became a pop phenom with a no. 1 hit record Voice of the Xtabay (1950). As part of her publicity build-up, Capitol Records exaggerated her biographical details, calling her an Inca princess or a goddess on Earth and dressing her voluptuous figure in colorful ceremonial costumes for her album covers and publicity photos. Columnist Walter Winchell thought the whole thing sounded so outlandish that he reported that "Yma Sumac" was actually an anagram for "Amy Camus," and that the singer was actually born in Brooklyn. Sumac was furious about the charge, but publicly kept her cool, responding, "I am not from Brooklyn, but I hear it is beautiful."

She made several popular records and appeared as a specialty number in a few B movies before divorcing Vivenco in 1957, although in the midst of an IRS investigation during which she was briefly jailed she remarried him and later made a triumphant tour of the Soviet Union in 1964. Divorcing Vivenco again in 1965, she became something of a recluse, emerging to record a rock album, to appear on a compilation of Disney film song remakes, Stay Awake (1988), and to sing the role of "Heidi" in Stephen Sondheim's Follies on stage in Long Beach, California.



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