By Jon Randall
Out of the Wonder Bread wasteland of most 50's music (How much is that doggy in the window?) Yma magically emerged with two number one albums in 1951 and '52 -- Vanquishing Bing, Rosemary, Perry, Frank, Doris, Dean, et alia.
Her phenomenal voice flew like a condor over the tropical neon orchestrations of her then-husband, Moises Vivanco. (When asked about their breakup, she said, "He is cuckoo. All men is cuckoo.") He composed an irresistible combination of ancient and modern Peruvian folk tunes with bubbling, swirling, popping Latin percussion and the huge, sumptuous, velvet-plush orchestra of MGM at its height. Sort of like each of the fruits in Carmen Miranda's headdress wailing away on its own wildly exotic instrument. Constant radical changes in color, mood, tempo, and texture!
And Yma herself! A stunning, regal, haunting beauty with an amazing five octave range -- never heard of in all musical history. She can growl lower than Louis Armstrong one minute, then chirp a higher more precise coloratura than Jeanette McDonald's the next. The voice quality is naturally ravishing -- particularly when she soars into vocal regions where no one else can remotely follow. She had absolutely perfect intonation and a superb rhythmic verve.
There were many wild stories about her origin that were widely circulated in the 50's . The official story supplied by her record company on the liner notes of her records was that she was a royal Sun Virgin of the High Andes who was abducted by anthropologists; leading to an angry local uprising. Also, government scientists had conclusively proved she could sing notes so high only dogs could hear.
The most common rumor led everyone to suspect she was really "Amy Camus" (Yma Sumac spelled backwards) a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn. (And Yduj Dnalrag was the illegitimate daughter of an Albanian cowherd.) The "journalist" who made that up was lucky he didn't get sued. "I hope people saying that stop that. Is all American talent coming from Brooklyn? I met the journalist who said that, and I said, 'don't run away, I'm not going to kill you.'" To this day she sticks to the official story. "Whatever Mr. Vivanca my ex-husband said on the album covers was true." (Her mother is directly related to Atahualpa -- the last Inca King).
Putting aside the silliness, camp, and hype, all five newly re-released CDs from Capitol records ("Capitol Records is happy with Yma, because Yma Sumac is strong, she is a legend, a mystery") should be in your permanent music collection. "Voice Of the Xtabay" is the most essential; "Mambo" is the perfect antidote to those you've-heard-it-a-million-times-before cookie-cutter sambas on KPFA.
There are so few genuinely great icons of the 50's awaiting rediscovery -- its really hard to keep from falling head over heels for this one.
"I've never had a teacher in my life," she says, "The only teacher I've ever had is Yma Sumac. I mastered my voice since I was a little girl. I knew I could sing when I was nine years old and my voice was very high, then when I was thirteen or fourteen I discovered I could sing low too. Then I taught myself to master between the high and low.
Goblin Magazine: Did you actually imitate the bird songs you heard in your village?
Yma Sumac: The birds were my inspiration since I was a little child. Each bird sings completely different. When I was six or seven years old I had a tremendous impression in my heart that the way they were singing was an inspiration for me. Some day, I said, when I grow up I'm going to imitate the songs. I never forgot the sound when I became a singer and a recorder.
GM: Did you learn to do your trills from the birds? They have beautiful trills and you do also.
YS: On the song Chuncho (Voice Of the Xtabay) I do a triple trill. Sometimes it doesn't come. The human throat is a mystery. When I was doing that the engineer I was recording with was so surprised -- he said 'what is that?' She has a double jointed throat.' On the stage it happened again in Poland. It was a big concert, I started singing and by the end, whoop, it come and ring. It was a surprise for me. It happened once again when I was singing with my ex-husband -- during the high note the strings for his guitar broke! It happened in Russia, Germany, Israel and many countries over the world and here too. The voice is so powerful when I was in Spain I broke a glass of apple juice that was on the piano. I was screaming 'cause I was scared the glass would get in my eyes. It was funny.
GM: Were you at all influenced by singers of the time like Jeanette McDonald?
YS: When I was about ten my sister took me to see a film. I saw Jeanette McDonald with Nelson Eddy, and I adore them! In my mind I think I would like to be like that. When I later met Nelson Eddy I almost fainted.
GM: So there was an operatic influence.
YS: I sing LakmÄ. To sing that you need a very high coloratura. Then I sang Magic Flute (obviously the Queen of the Night role). I have wonderful critics all over the world that say that If I wanted to be an opera singer I would be the best, but I don't do it so much because there are thousands of opera singers and I am only one. Other opera singers have tremendous admiration for me because even in my own music which is semi-classical, that I use a coloratura, which is classic. Even Mr. Pavarotti knows Yma Sumac could be the best.
But my listeners no like that. They give me sentence: 'You have to sing this music until you die.' So you have to do what they say because they are who make the artist, they are who buy the records. What can I do but obey?
GM: Is it true you've written 5,000 compositions?
YS: Yes, I'm taking the best for my recording. They are beautiful songs in Yma Sumac style. With my ex-husband I helped him in all the compositions with all the difficult parts vocally. We worked together but he never mentioned that I helped him. He composed the music and then I would embroider it with difficult beautiful colors of the piece. I would improvise and then learn the improvisation. Why? Because on the next performance I would have to do exactly the same from the record, because people already heard the record and want to hear it exactly the same. I also composed melodies. Like on the song Virgin Of The Sun God (from Voice Of The Xtabay) the opening tune is mine. But I don't care about not getting credit as long as people know now that I have talent as a composer. He had the copyright which Capitol records in handling right now.
He (Moises Vivanca) is a very good composer and played wonderful guitar. So he had the good luck to have a girl who was talented in music, not only to sing. So when two people have met they have found their work very good. If one of them is selfish that is terrible. When one has all the ambition or wants all the gravy for her or for him that is terrible. I have a very strong intellect. Nobody like's too much injustice, you can be soft but the softness has limits, some days you exploit. That is the way he lost Yma Sumac forever.
GM: Are you traveling with an orchestra now or a small group?
YS: A small group. I sing some of my own compositions and I sing some songs from my records like Malambo. But some of the more classical music, that is for big orchestra. GM: Is there a chance you might add liner notes on your CD's? It would be nice to have a detailed description about what each song is about.
YS: That is true but they don't give so much space. Xtabay does explain but the others do not. But I think now they are going to include pamphlet inside. It is important people should know what is the song, who is composer, what they singing, what it means as a song, it's important for culture. You must know what is the culture of each country of the world.
GM: Is anyone going to write your biography?
YS: My life story is very interesting, I'm writing my own life. It's very important to hear the life from the artist, because that is the only person that will tell you the truth. Someday you will see it.
GM: Do you think your voice is naturally an alto and the high notes are a falsetto?
YS: No no no no no falsetto. Falsetto means when you can't sing high. To sing high for me is no difficult because it is coming naturally. I mastered my voice by myself and how to project my voice. The way to project my voice, the way to open my mouth when I'm singing, if it's trembling its no nice, so it takes time to perfect my voice. You have to use your brain because it is pushing you what to do. You want to write you want to sing because your brain push you. You are the master. To be a singer, no matter how high a voice you have, you must know how to project the sound of your voice so it can touch the hearts of the people. That is the most difficult. You must think! Everybody can scream but that's nothing. If you can sing high that's nothing because it bothers the ear.
GM: You have a large gay following. Is that because gays have better taste in music?
YS: They love me, yes. Wherever I go they follow me. I lived in the United States for a long time and I disappear in the 70's. Then when I come back in 1984 there was a young boy I met at a hotel, eighteen, nineteen years old, and he was trembling, crying. And he say, "Miss Yma I want to ask forgiveness." And I say why? Who are you? He says, "I want to ask forgiveness and my mother too." I say why, what have you done? He says, "My mother knows you, my mother saw you in the 50s, she forced me to see your show and says you are the best singer in the world. Then I say, 'Oh Madre, you exaggerate so much. I know the tricks they do at the record company.'" Then they fought and she forced him to come. He says, "Miss Sumac forgive me my mother was right!"
The young generation and the old generation are there at my shows no matter what country. It's amazing. But I would like to say I'm very thankful to the people of all generations who remember Yma Sumac. At least I wrote music that touched their hearts.
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