An “Inca princess” threw her arms open wide to my Google search this week. On September 13th the Peruvian Songbird, Yma Sumac, was honored by Google on what would have been her 94th birthday.
Yma was born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri Del Castillo, however beyond that her biography is shrouded in promotion, mystery which is part of her mystique and allure.
She is said to have taken the name of her mother, Ima Shumaq, Quechua for “how beautiful!” for her stage name, Quechua does not use that as a name. She claimed to be an Incan princess, directly descended from the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa, though such is extremely unlikely.
According to her webpage, Yma Sumac could be regarded as “a princess royal and spiritual leader of the mountain people of Peru…(occupying) a unique position in the Inca religion,” though such reformulates the life of the Incas and their descendants. However, the government of Peru did write a support for her claim to royal descent in 1946.
Yma’s parents, she claimed, weren’t thrilled that their daughter wanted to sing. It wasn’t a proper thing for a young woman to do, but she loved to go into the mountains and test her voice against the rocks, it is said, though she may have grown up in urban Callao. In any case, she developed her style of music, her ability to project her voice in this time.
Yma had a very wide range, that varies from report to report. Often it was over 4 octaves though she claimed 5, from low baritone to whistle tones in her high notes and moved effortlessly between the ranges. She claimed to have taken her inspiration from the sounds of mountain Peru, where she created a mythical land and a mythology of herself growing up as a girl. Indeed, in her song “Chuncho” she reflects the range and sounds of the forest creatures that she was trying to imitate. American composer and critic Virgil Thomson said of her voice, “That scale is very close to 4 octaves, but is in no way inhuman or outlandish in sound” Most singers have a range of two octaves. Los Angeles Times critic Don Heckman called her, “a living, breathing, Technicolor musical fantasy – a kaleidoscopic illusion of MGM exotica come to life.
She began her career singing for an Argentinian radio station, and recorded 16 tracks with Moises Vivanco, a charango artist and his group of players and dancers. While still a girl, at the age of 14, she married Moises and they moved to New York City. She was singing in a club when a talent scout from Capital Records heard her sing. He signed her on the spot.
Her first album sold over 500,000 copies with little press. It outsold albums by American artists Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman. She became an international hit, touring Europe and Russia, where her two-week tour was extended to 6 months. She was paid $25,000 for her performance in Las Vegas, a very large sum for the 1950’s.
Yma loved to dress in clothing that fantastically reflected her Peruvian roots, and her claimed status as a princess. She was a very beautiful woman, and her person assistant said she would do her make up like she was going on stage even when she became very ill.
Her career extended into the 1990’s, as her music had found a following with new and younger audiences. “Ataypura” , one of her signature songs, was featured in the 1998 film The Big Lebowski.
Yma had told people she had retired to Peru after she stopped performing.
“That’s the legend that she stuck with all through these decades,” Yma’s personal assistant said. “She didn’t want people to know she was here (in Los Angeles) and not working. The story was good for her. She’s a very eccentric woman. . . . Her whole career and life is based on her mystery, and so the facts and fiction is a fine line with her.”
Sumac died of colon cancer in November 2008.