Yma Sumac: The Incan Princess and the Voice of the Andes

By - 30 August, 2012

If there’s one thing I can recall from the classic Disney movies I watched as a child, it’s this: all fairytale princesses can sing impeccably. Whether it was Snow White creating melodies with the birds in the forest, or the Little Mermaid wooing Prince Eric with her lovely voice, the singing princess has become a classic trope in fairytale movies. And yet, despite the abundance of so many damsels that can carry a tune on the silver screen, it’s not often that you see – or rather, hear – a princess who can actually sing. And the only reason that I use the phrase “not often” instead of “never” is because once upon a time (get it?), a woman existed who embodied all the qualities of those fairytale princesses: Yma Sumac.

Sumac, whose real name is Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri Del Castillo, was born on September 13th 1922 in Callao, a large port near Lima, the capital of Peru. From a very early age, it was clear that the girl had an intense passion for singing. She would join in the performances of traditional highland folksongs as a child, singing in Quechua, an indigenous language of the Andes. Chávarri’s decision to sing these songs was not only to satisfy her thirst for singing either — it was also a sort of homage to her ancestors. Chávarri’s mother and her family descended from Ichocán, a highland community located in the Cajamarcas province. Ichocán is a legendary site — it was the final battleground between the Spanish conquerors and the Incan empire in the sixteenth century. Some said that Chavarri was a direct descendant of the last Incan emperor, Atahualpa, thus making Chávarri a princess by blood (this was later confirmed to be true by the Peruvian government in 1946).

Due to her royal blood, as well as her social status in Callao, Chávarri’s parents discouraged her from her musical aspirations. But the wishes of Chávarri’s parents couldn’t hinder her; she continued to sing at any opportunity she could get. There are even sources which describe the girl travelling to the tops of mountains to sing to rocks as if they were her audience, and imitating the high-pitched calls of the birds that she would hear — this latter talent even became a staple of her vocal repertoire. Eventually, her hard work paid off. By the time she was twenty years old, Chávarri was able to hit four and a half octaves with her voice, the largest vocal range that any singer has had to date.

Her extensive vocal talent led her to meet Moisés Vivanco, who became her bandleader, and eventually her husband in 1942. It was this same year that Chávarri was featured on Argentine radio. The following year, she recorded her first album in Argentina on the Odeon label. The album consisted of 18 Peruvian folk songs, with Vivanco’s group Companía Peruana de Arte as the backing orchestra, which consisted of 46 indigenous dancers, singers, and musicians. This first album grabbed the attention of the rest of South America, and Chávarri’s epic and royal voice spread throughout the continent. As her fame grew, Chávarri decided to change her stage name to Yma Sumac (sometimes spelled as Imma Sumack or Ymma Sumack), which derives from Ima Shumaq, Quechua for “how beautiful.” In interviews, Sumac also claims that the phrase can mean “beautiful flower,” or “beautiful girl.”

By 1946, Yma Sumac and Moises Vivanco decided to try their luck in the United States, and they moved to New York City. There, they performed under the moniker, “The Inka Taky Trio,” which consisted of Sumac and her voice, her cousin dancing and singing contralto, and Vivanco on guitar. After several years of small club gigs, the American recording industry finally discovered the group, and they were signed to Capitol Records in 1950. Though they were intrigued and mystified by her voice, the producers at Capitol Records thought it best to Americanise Sumac’s musical styling. Though she still sang Incan and South American folk songs, Capitol Records brought on producers Les Baxter and Billy May to give the music a bit more of a Hollywood, lounge kind of style.

The end result became Yma Sumac’s album, Voice of the Xtabay, which created a hybrid between South American, North American, and Caribbean genres, with Sumac singing in Quechua throughout the recording. It is probably her most popular album to date, and for good reason: the orchestral compositions, folkloric structures and, especially, Sumac’s voice, makes the album incredibly mystifying. Check out the song “Wayra (Dance of the Winds)” to see what you’re missing.

Shortly after releasing Voice of the Xtabay, Sumac exploded onto the scene, and the American population was enamoured with her exotic looks and incredible voice. The public took notice of her, and considered her as a contemporary of other big American stars at the time, like Frank Sinatra. They became equally intrigued with her royal blood, as Capitol Records took advantage of her exoticism and promoted her status as an Incan Princess. Not everyone believed this part of Sumac’s life though; rumours went around in the papers claiming that Sumac was actually a housewife named Amy Camus in Brooklyn, who merely spelled her name backwards to appear exotic.

Sumac shrugged off these kinds of rumours, especially since her fame in the United States was quickly growing by the minute. Her celebrity status led her to get involved in other mediums of stardom, and in 1951, Sumac had an appearance in the Broadway musical, Flahooley, in which she performed three songs, written by her husband, Vivanco, and Sammy Fain.

The following years also thrust her into the Hollywood scene, where she appeared in films like The Secret of the Incas (1954), with Charlton Heston. The movie, an adventure film, went on to inspire certain scenes in the Indiana Jones trilogy. In this film, Sumac essentially plays herself, an Incan princess who mesmerises people with her incredible voice (several songs from Voice of the Xtabay are featured throughout the film). Sumac also speaks in Quechua, Spanish, and English throughout the film, and looks incredibly beautiful while doing it. There is a scene in which Heston arrives in Machu Picchu with his arm candy, Nicole Maury, and they meet Sumac and an archaeologist. After looking at Maury, the archaeologist makes a comment about how grateful he is to see an attractive woman such as herself, because according to him, there aren’t many around Machu Picchu. Quite ironic, considering how much of Sumac’s fame was based around her beauty.

And even though Sumac’s beauty and talent was more than enough for Broadway, Hollywood, and Capitol Records, it wasn’t enough for Moises Vivanco. The two divorced in 1957, followed by another marriage and eventual divorce between the two in 1965. Without her bandleader at her side, Sumac decided to take the Inka Taky Trio back on tour, and she spent the majority of the sixties on tour in Latin America, Asia, and Europe. She even spent several years in the Soviet Union, where she recorded her only live album.

Despite the fact that Sumac was going through tough marital problems at the time, her performances supposedly were nonetheless mesmerising. In the Peruvian magazine La Batuta, columnist Felipe Burga Delgado describes how Sumac’s performances were the most magical thing he’d ever seen, as the singer would rise out of the shadows, surrounded by dancers and elaborate Incan decorations, and overwhelm the audience with her voice. By this point in her career, Sumac’s voice was at its apotheosis: she could sing in the low baritone range, and then immediately change to a range far higher than any soprano. The best example of this vocal range is in the song “Cuncho (The Forest Creatures)”. She also had a special “double voice” singing (featured in “Tumba [Earthquake]”), which sounds similar to Indonesian throat singing, and could make high-pitched birdcalls, as previously mentioned. And while she still sang in Quechua quite often, Sumac also sung in Spanish, English, Italian, and even Russian.

Over the years, Sumac’s voice, style, and beauty didn’t change all that much, yet by the time she returned to the United States, the public had more or less forgotten about her. The popular music was now rock and roll, and Sumac could find no niche in the new scene. She even attempted to integrate herself into the rock and roll genre, making a psychedelic album in the seventies entitled Miracles. Though it’s a cult classic now, it did not gain much attention at the time.

The rest of Sumac’s life was much quieter than it had been in her youth. She returned to live in Peru for the rest of the seventies, and eventually returned to the United States to live in Los Angeles. By the end of the eighties, Sumac had a small comeback, as lounge music once again became popular. She went on several tours, made a return to the theatre, and was even featured on some talk shows as a performer. Her last well-known recording was a German techno record, entitled “Mambo ConFusion.”

In 2006, Sumac returned to Peru to receive the Orden del Sol award from the president, as well as the Jorge Basadra medal, two highly esteemed awards. Her last years were spent peacefully in California, where she passed away from colon cancer on November 1st 2008. And though she is gone, her voice still lives on: Yma Sumac, the voice of the Andes.

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