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Yma Sumac - The Pop Life of an Andean Princess

The singer Yma Sumac stands alone as the most famous Peruvian in the world. Only novelist Mario Vargas Llosa approaches a comparable degree of international recognition. However, unlike Llosa, her cachet isn't highbrow art, but pop culture kitsch. Appropriately, she is the only Peruvian with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She came into her own, globally, during the 1950s and could be described as a cross between the high art of Maria Callas and the high camp of Brazilian diva Carmen Miranda. "Exoticism" and novelty songs were an ongoing selling point in the United States in the pre-Elvis era of American music, and Yma Sumac, with her exotic Andean looks (she is reportedly a direct descendant of the last Inca king Atahualpa) and her four-and-a-half octave reach, found a niche with a wide audience.

Yma Sumac was born in 1922 in Ichocán, Peru, with the name Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo. Biographical data shows that she practiced singing by imitating the sounds of the many exotic birds of Peru. By the age of thirteen she was already singing before crowds of thousands, and her vocal range attracted the attention of the minister of education, who sent her and her family to Lima so she could attend a Catholic boarding school. By 1942 she adopted the stage name Imma Sumack, later modified to Yma Sumac, and had begun singing on the radio. Years later a rumor spread that "Yma Sumac" was an anagram for "Amy Camus" and that she hailed from Brooklyn, to which Yma jokingly responded "must all talent come from Brooklyn?"

During the Latin music boom of the 1940's she moved to New York and a few years later was signed by Capitol records, which at that time was working with pop legends like Billy May and Les Baxter. She hit the charts offering slick, popularized versions of Andean and South American folk tunes, as well as mambo songs in sync with the cha-cha-cha zeitgeist of the times. Her albums—now popularly sought-after pop and camp items—also featured recordings of other performer's novelty hits, such as "Wimoweh," also known as, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," but all arranged to showcase her famous bass-to-coloratura voice.

Her exotic allure, complete with elaborate "Inca Princess" costumes, attracted much attention, and she appeared in major motion pictures such as Secret of the Incas, which starred Charlton Heston and was filmed in her native Peru. She also recorded the song "I Wonder" for Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty.

Though her popularity peaked in the 1950s, she continued to perform in concert halls worldwide throughout the 1960s. She attempted to reach a new audience with a pop-rock album in 1971, and then returned to Peru in semi-retirement. She began to make a comeback in the 1980s, which included a turn in the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies in Long Beach, California, as well as recitals in New York and San Francisco.

But it was in the late 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium which saw a renewal of interest in Yma Sumac’s work, with songs (especially her standard "Gopher Mambo") on the soundtracks to such movies as Men with Guns, The Big Lebowski, Happy, Texas, Ordinary Decent Criminal, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and The In-Laws.

While living in Los Angeles, in 2006 Yma Sumac was invited back to Lima to receive the Orden del Sol (Order of the Sun) award by the President of Peru, Alejandro Toledo, as well as the Jorge Basadre Medal by the Universidad Nacional de San Marcos. Her return to her native Peru was one of the biggest media events in the country’s history.

Yma Sumac died on November 1, 2008 in Los Angeles. She was 86.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Peru: Art , Arequipa’s Phantoms, Literature In Peru, Peruvian Culture, Museums in Peru, Peru Dance and Theatre, Peruvian Cinema: From Crisis To Opportunity and Music in Peru.

By Ricardo Segreda
Growing up in New York, Rick Segreda used to cut out of high school in order to hang out at the Museum of Modern Art and catch foreign-language...
04 Dec 2013

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