Vol. 3, Issue #21 Nov. 7th - Nov. 20th, 2008

Tiger Bear From Hell at NONzine.com

By: Wilhelm Murg

Death of the Sun Virgin, Yma Sumac

You would be hard pressed to find another musician as esoteric or as exotic as Yma Sumac, who died on November 1st at the age of 86. Her life ended in an assisted-living home after a long bout with colon cancer. Sumac was untrusting and reclusive through her entire life and she became even more withdrawn during her last years. Her personal assistant and friend, make-up artist Damon Devine, who helped put on her elaborate make-up everyday of her last eleven years, said that as her health and mind failed she was mentally living in the 1950s - and what time it was to be alive!

Like some jungle Valkyrie, Yma Sumac seemed to come out of nowhere in 1950. A strangely beautiful exotic woman, she wore make-up that most drag queens would kill for, with elaborate costumes, while full orchestras played her dramatic music as she demonstrated her 4+ octave range, which went from deep guttural growls to the highest Snow White peaks at the high end of the registry. Audiences flocked to see this Incan princess perform the songs of her homeland.

Actually, part of the mystic was that much of Sumac’s personality was shrouded in rumors, many of which she started herself. Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo was born to a ranching family in Peru in 1922. At the age of twenty she appeared on radio and married the composer and bandleader Moisés Vivanco. She recorded at least 20 tracks of Peruvian folk music in 1943. In 1946 she and Vivanco moved to New York City where, along with one of Sumac’s cousins, they performed as the Inca Taky Trio. By 1950 Sumac had assumed the final spelling of her stage name and signed with Capitol Records as a solo artist.
Capitol had her first album, “The Voice of Xtabay,” orchestrated by the legendary Les Baxter. Baxter had been laying the groundwork for what would become the space age pop movement with his first set of three 78s, “Music Out Of The Moon,” with theremin maestro Dr. Samuel Hoffman, who had popularized the instrument in such films as “Spellbound,” “The Lost Weekend,” and “The Spiral Staircase.” Baxter’s work with Sumac, along with his 1952 album, “Le Sacre du Sauvage” - half of which would be covered in Martin Denny’s first album, the groundbreaking “Exotica” - would begin the Exotica movement, proper.

The thing you have to remember about Les Baxter is that he WAS a Hollywood composer. While his view was world music, it was always came out as an Americanized fantasy on what foreign music should sound like. This was obviously not a problem for Sumac, for while there might be a folk song hidden in there somewhere, the sheer stylization she put on the music, not to mention Baxter’s lounge esthetics, gave the music a Disneyland/Technicolor feel.

The duo couldn’t have struck at a better time. With soldiers coming home from World War II telling of exotic locales where they were stationed, and the impending celebration for when Hawaii would finally join the union as a state, everything exotic, from Tiki wall hangings to bizarre pineapple-smothered steaks at the local Trader Vic’s, were “in style.” After the album was completed, Baxter fell into his dream and Sumac was in need of a new arranger.

Enter Billy May, Sinatra’s arranger, the guy who charted “Come Fly With Me”; one of the big boys. Perez Pardo had just moved to New York and popularized the Mambo dance and music style. So what was the name of Sumac’s 1954 album? “Mambo,” of course.

Eventually Moisés Vivanco was allowed to arrange her music, such as the 1957 album, “The Legend of Jivaro.” According to the album notes Sumac and Vivanco went into the headhunting territory of the Jivaros and recorded the source material for the album, which was also one of her chintzier musical expeditions.

Yma Sumac disappeared for the most part in the 1960s, appearing once in a great while to do a series of concerts. My generation was lucky enough to find out about her through thrift store record and used record store finds, but she didn’t leave us hanging. Her most memorable moment in the 1980s comes from the Hal Wilner album of contemporary singers performing Disney songs, “Stay Awake,” in 1988. There, among such avant-garde experiments such as Ken Nordine’s “Word Jazz” narration, Tom Wait’s performing a dirge version of “Hi-Ho,” and the free jazz legend Sun Ra attacking “Pink Elephants on Parade,” Sumac did a beautiful, Wagnerian performance of “I Wonder” from “Sleeping Beauty.” She stayed active during this period up until the early 1990s, as the loungecore movement rose from a small cult to a full-blown fad for a couple of minutes.

Sumac is probably best recognized today through her music that has been used in films, such as “Ataypura” in “The Big Lebowski,” “Goomba Boomba” and “Malambo No. 1” in “Death to Smoochy,” and “Gopher Mambo” in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” “Bo Mambo” was in a Kahlua liquor ad and sampled in The Black Eyed Peas’ “Hands Up.” She also appeared and sang in the 1954 Charlton Heston vehicle “Secret of the Incas” (her parts are available on youtube.com) and she has a part in the 1957 Cornel Wilde film “Omar Khayyam.”

Sumac’s voice was already legendary in the 1950s, and like her life, it grew to mythic proportions as time marched on. While I and others have sang the praises of a lot of punk, industrial, and no wave female screeching that was inspired by Yoko Ono (Lena Lovich, Nina Hagen, Minnie Ripperton, etc.) Yma Sumac was also the root to a lot of those noise divas. The faux sun virgin has finally been thrown into the volcano. She may have not been a real Incan princess, but she was truly the Queen of Exotica.

Visit Yma Sumac’s official site, SunVirgin.com, for more information.

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