A Peruvian Princess Sings ► Monday Musical Appreciation

She’s now considered the Queen of Exotica, the musical genre that encompasses a previous era’s Kitch, but at one time Yma Súmac was considered to be a Peruvian princess.

I discovered Yma Súmac in the early ’60s. Among my mother’s LPs were a couple by Yma Sumac. As a kid I was attracted to crazy colours and costumes on the covers, but once I dropped the needle on the record, I WAS HOOKED!!! That voice! Those songs! I had never heard anything like it before and have been a fan ever since.

There has never been anything else like her. Listen:

Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo, was born on September 13, 1922 in Callao, Peru, but took the name Yma Súmac, which had various spellings until she signed with Capital Records in 1950.

According to the WikiWackyWoo:

Stories published in the 1950s claimed that she was an Incan princess, directly descended from Atahualpa. The government of Peru in 1946 formally supported her claim to be descended from Atahualpa, the last Incan emperor”.[7]
She was the subject of a series of publicity campaigns designed to
shroud her origins in mystery: was she an Inca princess, one of the
chosen ‘Golden Virgins’? Whatever her heritage, what was abundantly
genuine was Sumac’s four octave range, ascending from ‘female baritone,
through lyric soprano, to high coloratura’.

According to her obituary in the LA Times:

Bursting onto the U.S. music scene after signing with Capitol Records in 1950, the raven-haired Sumac was known as the “Nightingale of the Andes,” the “Peruvian Songbird” and a “singing marvel” with a 4 1/2 -octave (she said five-octave) voice.

“She is five singers in one,” boasted her then-husband Moises Vivanco, a composer-arranger, in a 1951 interview with the Associated Press. “Never in 2,000 years has there been another voice like hers.”

After Sumac performed at the Shrine Auditorium with a company of dancers, drummers and musicians in 1955, a Los Angeles Times writer observed:

“She warbles like a bird in the uppermost regions, hoots like an owl in the lowest registers, produces bell-like coloratura passages one minute, and exotic, dusky contralto tones the next.”

Yma Súmac died in a Los Angeles assisted living facility in 1988. You can read all about her amazing life on the internet, but, as always, it’s really about the music. Take a listen:


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Headly Westerfield
Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.