Yma Sumac, self-styled "Nightingale of the Andes" whose reported five-octave range was the stuff of legend, passed away at an assisted living facility in Silver Lake, California on Saturday, November 1 at the age of 86. Sumac, whose real name was Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo, joined a troupe of traditional Peruvian musicians, singers, and dancers led by Moises Vivanco in 1941; Vivanco later married her and groomed Sumac for stardom. Signed to Capitol Records in 1950, Sumac embarked on a series of successful long-playing albums beginning with the best-selling Voice of the Xtabay that year. The covers of these albums often boasted exotic plants, jungle foliage, toucans, and palpitating volcanoes by way of illustration, but even the album covers were not as volcanic as Sumac's electrifying singing, characterized by whooping, growling, sung pitches up in whistling range, and a husky, heavy exoticism. Identified as composer on these efforts, as Sumac's husband and Svengali, Moises Vivanco served a central role in fashioning her legend -- though divorced along the way and remarried, the couple lasted until 1965. However, Sumac's intense, jungle styled music was the work of composer and arranger Les Baxter, who unwillingly surrendered credit on her Capitol albums, but whose involvement is indicated secretly by the true meaning of the word "Xtabay" -- it's near Pig Latin for "Baxter."
They worked together on Sumac's final album, Miracles, in 1971. Baxter had been scoring biker movies and added a heavy rock soundtrack to Sumac's usual wailing and warbling. Miracles is a real anomaly in music history; and you either love it or hate it; listeners in 1971 simply didn't know what to make of it, and Sumac subsequently retired in sight, spreading the rumor that she had returned to Peru, but actually remaining in Los Angeles. Sumac had halted a lucrative touring career in the mid 1960s owing to declining returns; she was hurt by rumors that in concerts her voice was somehow electronically "jacked up," something technology wasn't able to achieve in her era. However, in 1984 Sumac began to make limited appearances again, which were embraced by a younger audience with enthusiasm for another 15 years, even as her recordings remained difficult to find. While pure hype was the driving force of much of Yma Sumac's material and publicity -- she was an Inca princess, belonging to a native tribe no anthropologist had ever heard of -- Sumac was certainly very good at playing out the role, and it was a harmless and entertaining legend that her fans didn't mind buying into. In sum, Yma Sumac made a unique contribution to the field of popular music as the undisputed queen of Exotica and one of the most colorful entertainers to emerge from the Ike and Mamie era.
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