“There is no voice like it in the world today. It has a greater range than any female voice of concert or opera. It soars into the acoustic stratosphere, or it plumbs sub-contralto depths of pitch with equal ease. Such voices happen only once in a generation.”
— Glen Dillard Gunn, Washington Times Herald, 1950
At the peak of her career in the '50s, a rumor surfaced that Peruvian singing sensation Yma Sumac wasn't the Andean virgin of the Inca sun gods that the publicity machines had made her out to be. She was instead, a New York City columnist charged, “a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn named Amy Camus who had reversed her name for Hollywood.” It wasn't true, but it added to the mystique of “Madam Sumac.” Today this queen of exotica is entrancing a new audience with her wild and uninhibited five-octave voice. Reissues of her classic albums on CD are now available; and now she's embarking on a concert tour, with all the PR trimmings. “Two weeks ago the record company asked me to sign autographs at Tower Records,” explains the 60-ish Sumac from her home in Los Angeles. “For close to three hours I signed autographs until my arm fell asleep and — can you believe it? — we sold out of records.”
Those early recordings — with titles like Voice of the Xtabay, Mambo!, and Legend of the Sun Virgin and with cover art that featured her almond eyes staring at shrunken heads or stone idols — catapulted her to fame. Carmen Miranda attended her debut at the Hollywood Bowl. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was supposedly a fan.
“I taught myself to sing and have a technique that I've been told is almost perfect,” says Sumac. She came into the world as Emperatiz Chavarri in the Andean mountain town of Ichocan in her native Peru. Her mother — Imma Sumack Emilia Atahualpa Chavarri — was a full-blooded Quechuan Indian, while her father, Sixto Chavarri, was half Indian and half Spanish. The Incan royalty connection was definitely there; Time magazine's 1950 report that “at the age of eight, she was chanting rituals before 30,000 sun-worshiping Indians” seems dubious, however. Raised on a farm in Cuzco overlooking Machu Picchu, it was as a child that she discovered her gift.
“I was 8 or 9 when I became aware of my voice,” says Sumac. “I discovered that at a certain time in the afternoon all the birds would start to sing as they rested in the trees. They would sing back and forth, and those sounds stirred my curiosity and I would try to imitate them.”
While in her teens she met her musical collaborator, composer and South American musicologist Moises Vivanco, who had heard about the girl with “the voice of the birds and of the earthquake.” Astonished by what he heard, he tried to convince her parents to let her become a professional singer. They were vehemently against it.
“I come from a conservative family and was the youngest, so they were terribly opposed,” says Sumac. “It wasn't easy for my mother. It was my older brothers who finally convinced her.”
Sumac spent her early teens in a convent in Lima, where she studied, singing with Vivanco's ensemble, Compania Peruna de Arte. In 1942 she married Vivanco at age 15. The pair left Peru in 1946 bound for the United States. A year later they were performing at S.F.'s Marines Memorial Theater as the Inca Tacky Trio. A review of the performances by a Chronicle critic described them as “somewhere between nightclub entertainment and anthropology.”
When the trio arrived in New York City in 1949, a record scout for Capitol saw them perform. The label took a risk and in 1950 issued Voice of the Xtabay. “It took six months to [create] the orchestrations,” Sumac recalls. “We worked with many great arrangers, many who worked at the studios at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and with the opera in New York City.” The record was a hit, and Sumac soon commanded thousands of dollars for appearances. With radiance and charisma she appeared in two films: Secret of the Incas in 1954, and Omar Khayyam in 1957. “In the beginning there was a limited view of us doing Peruvian folklore as being 'hillbilly,' ” she says. “But I won the American public's respect, and I appreciate respect more than admiration.”
In 1957 her marriage to Vivanco came crashing down: He'd fathered twins by his secretary. A front-page scandal, filled with “hair-pulling, slapping, and screaming,” sent her career spiraling downward.
“He never helped me at all. On the contrary, I was the one who helped him,” she now says. “On all those records for Capitol I contributed to the compositions, and my name was never mentioned. The hardest sections of music in the songs are things that I created. He didn't tell the truth, but time has blown it away.”
She stopped recording and began to perform internationally as American audiences lost interest. In the early '70s she did a disappointing rock album for London Records and made what would be her last public performance for a decade in 1974. After retirement she divided her time among homes in Peru, Spain, and Los Angeles until 1984 when producer Alan Eichler persuaded her to sing at the Vine Street Bar and Grill in Los Angeles. In 1987 she sold out Manhattan's Ballroom Cabaret for three weeks, and returned to San Francisco for an appearance at Theater on the Square.
While some new fans view her as kitsch, part of a movement of cocktail lounge exotica like Martin Denny and Esquivel, Sumac takes what she does seriously. “Doing musica exotica is not easy,” she says. “It's mysterious and demonstrates a great musical legacy of what was the Incan Empire. All my music is based on the feeling of the Andes. It transports you to that civilization and its beauty through imagination. I have many imitators, but there's only one Yma Sumac.”
Yma Sumac performs Wednesday and Thursday, June 5 and 6, at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell, S.F.; call 885-0750.