Viva la diva!: Rupert Smith explains his fascination with Yma Sumac
Sunday 27 July 2008
I first heard the voice of Yma Sumac in a kitchen in Liverpool, where I was cooking dinner one night in the early 1980s. My friend Tony had been given a cassette copy of a 1950s album called The Legend of the Sun Virgin, which we thought sounded a bit of a camp laugh. We put it on, and within 30 seconds dinner was forgotten. Yma's cod-operatic voice soared, swooped, growled and chirruped against the kind of kitsch exotic backing usually reserved for B-movies. It was simultaneouly hilarious and moving, unlike anything we had ever heard before.
Thereafter, it became a race to acquire as many Sumac recordings as possible. Most of the albums were deleted, and one had to rely on second-hand shops or large stores with very slow turnover. But gradually we amassed them all, revelled in the music and obsessed over the covers, luridly-coloured photos of Yma in exotic drag, raven hair swept back, eyes concealed by make-up. Sleeve notes added fuel to the fire, with their transparently false claims that Sumac was an Inca princess/priestess, discovered "talking to the birds" in the Peruvian mountains, and that her songs were "genuine" Inca music. When we discovered a rumour that said princess was in fact a media-savvy Brooklyn waitress born Amy Camus, our obsession was complete.
Now, a painstakingly researched biography of Yma Sumac reveals that she was neither of those things, but simply an extraordinarily talented, eccentrically managed Peruvian singer born some time in the 1920s. She rode to stardom on the back of her amazing vocal range and her extremely imaginative manager/publicist/husband Moises Vivanco, who tapped into America's postwar lust for escapism by packaging her as an otherworldly Hispanic sexpot. Her recordings, from 1950's Voice of the Xtabay onwards, sold in vast quantities, she toured all over the world (including the USSR at the height of the Cold War), made a few films and a great deal of money.
Nicholas Limansky, the author of Yma Sumac: the Art behind the Legend, argues that Sumac sold her artistic soul to the devil (in the shape of Vivanco) in return for stardom. However, reading chapter after chapter detailing the mess that Sumac made of the second half of her career, it seems just as likely that she was her own worst enemy, falling out with everyone who tried to work with her, sabotaging albums and concerts. So terrifying were her tantrums that many friends felt it safer to change their phone numbers.
All of this makes me love Yma Sumac more, not less. As tastes moved away from her brand of campy exotica, Yma remained marvellously unchanged. In comeback after comeback, well into the 1990s, she stuck to what she knew best: the full glamour, the vocal trills and growls, the exotic persona that heroically defied the passing years.
I am particularly fond of two Yma Sumac albums, and listen to them constantly. The first is Legend of the Jivaro (1957), on the cover of which Sumac appears as a crazed priestess hovering glamorously over a smoking cauldron, surrounded by shrunken heads. The tracks purport to be the songs of the Amazonian Jivaro tribe; if they really are, I want to go and live with these people immediately. Track 7, "Hampi", is a cocaine ritual, and you can hear the backing vocalists assiduously chewing the leaf while Yma goes into a violent coke frenzy that leaves her panting and exhausted.
The other Sumac album I treasure is her last, Miracles (1971), an unlikely rock outing, which contains some of the most beautiful, bizarre things she ever recorded. Limansky recounts how Sumac, increasingly hard to please, took exception to just about every aspect of the record (which had been produced and indeed financed by friends and fans) and forced the label, London, to withdraw it from circulation. (It was reissued on CD in 1998 under the perky title Yma Rocks!)
At the time of writing, Yma Sumac is still alive, in frail health, in Los Angeles, where she has lived for decades. I am the proud owner of a signed photograph, bought through her website. I have no idea if Yma Sumac understands the nature of her appeal to people like me, who find her at once beautiful, absurd and utterly, eternally enchanting.
'Yma Sumac: The art behind the legend' by Nicholas E Limansky, YBK Publishers, is available through Amazon, or direct from www.ybkpublishers.com
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