Yma Sumac: Legend of the Camp Goddess

Yma Sumac is one of the most notorious and legendary singers of the 20th Century. Her vocal range and voice techniques were so unbelievable that she was eventually taken to court because she was believed to be a fraud! Alledgedly the case was immediately dropped as soon as she started to sing in the court-room.

She was selling millions of records and gave concerts around the world during the height of the Exoctica craze in the 1950s. Although she is still alive and performing today, she is now more or less unknown and as exotic as her music.

But why could one of the greatest recorded voices ever become so obscure and only used as sample fodder, background music in movies and ice-cream commercials?

Because Yma Sumac is the goddess of camp!

While other "world music" is either boring, pretentious or fake (Lisa Gerrard anyone?!) Sumac has always been the queen of showmanship. It is impossible to distinguish if her music is original or authentic or a Hollywood pastiche of everything that is supposedly exotic sounding.
But who needs authenticity anyway? The real fun and appeal of the Sumac-sound is her ability to add this bizarre Disney-touch to her vocal artistery.

Just look at the spectacular sleeve of "Legend of the Jivaro", where she looms as an obsessed headhunter-witch over a steaming cauldron. How on earth could the record live up to this cover? It does! And it even surpasses it.

She groans, wails, re-enacts earthquakes, forest creatures, birds, abusing husbands and tortured princesses, while the music shifts from straight folklore to full blown cinematic overdrive (and back again). Diamanda Galas, Nina Hagen and Björk should bow down to her (they probably do!).

Check "Chuncho" which must have been inspiration for Disney and his Imagineers when they dreamed up the "Jungle Cruise", and "The enchanted Tiki Room" :

The most accessible highlight of her career was "Mambo!". Its a wild take on the popular dance-craze which still sounds fresh and imaginative today.

To top the outrageousness of her recordings, she appeared as a mixture of female Liberace and ultimate Hollywood bitch. (a 1992 documentary about her life showed this). While she and her husband Moises Vivanco claimed all the credits for her wild sound, it was actually legendary composer and arranger Les Baxter who was responsible for the complex and innovative songs.

But she fell victim to her diva attitude, star fits and the changing times. Her marriage was overshadowed by violence and ended in divorce. Tax evasion caused her to go on a lengthy world-tour and when she came back to the USA the cinemascope escapism of her sound was outdated and she was nearly forgotten. Her attempts to go "psychedelic" in the early seventies produced a very strange record (even for her standards) and after it flopped her career was forever waiting for a new revival.

Since then the funny but vicious rumour that her real name was actually Amy Camus (Yma Sumac backwards) and that she was a housewife from the Bronx instead of an Peruvian princess is overshadowing her legacy until today.

More up-to-date news, music and photos can be found on Yma Sumac.com.


tristan said...

somewhat sick, but absolutely great anyway.

Anonymous said...

What an unusual report, in that most every word is incorrect. What may be considered "camp" today by this silly new "Tiki" crowd, was not camp back then. Yma Sumac IS Peruvian and in 2006, collected a good 8 medals of honor from there. There was mass hysteria everywhere she went, the same as whenever she appears anywhere in America. A near 5 octave range is more than any opera singer and could hardly be considered 'camp' or Heaven forbid, "lounge" as I've heard before. Sumac traveled the entire world in several world tours, playing in huge opera house-type theaters. She also sang operatic arias, to 20 minute standing ovations. Les Baxter claimed much more credit than he deserved for his work with Sumac and her husband. Those songs were re-worked ancient Inca songs that Sumac's husband was a master at, and she was the queen of natural improvisation.

And finally, her psychedelic album, "Miracles" did not do well, because she was very difficult and threatened to sue if the cover wasn't changed. It was pullled and now sells for big money on Ebay. She had a massive comeback in 1984 that ran high to this very day. All of her records have been reissued countless times on CD and she will pass away with rather extraordinary money as result of her royalties. Her last concert was in 1997, her last recording in 1991, a 90's dance track, "Mambo Confusion." A legion of teenage fans since her record's reissues on CD in 1996, continue to send fan mail and gifts from all over the planet (last week from Switzerland, Poland and Germany). At this writing she is not well and not expected to ever fully recover. Her legacy will be considered "campy" by those who enjoy ANYthing camp-- but cherished by those who really know music, the voice and her legend. The courtroom scenario you mention is insane and beneath her. Never happened.

No, I am not a sycophant---but her (36 year old) personal assistant and webmaster.

StellaVista said...

Hello Anonymous personal assistant and webmaster,

thank you for your comment on my site.
I appreciate your insight and corrections, but I think that you might have missed some points i had made.

My website is interested in the more obscure, slightly bizarre and wrongly forgotten aspects of music, art and everything in between.

You´ll see that I don´t bitch about things here. When I chose to write about something, I do this because I am interested in it in a positive way.

I actually know and love Yma Sumac since I first heard her music in the mid-eighties. I own most of her regular albums on vinyl (for the great covers) and on CD for sound clarity.

I don´t think that "most every word is incorrect" as you claim.
I wrote about her great voice, the millions of sold records, the tours and the great worldwide fame she held in the 1950s.

My article is asking the question why she is almost forgotten now!
I do think (and wrote) that she is one of the greatest voices ever recorded.
I´ve seen her in concert many years ago and from there I know that her audience is really rather special.

If it wasn´t for the re-evaluation of a new generation who discovered her music under a label which you might dislike, Yma Sumac would be even more obscure today.

It can´t be denied that Yma Sumac was at her peak during the "Tiki"-phase and her whole "presentation" and "act" fitted the aesthetics of that era like a glove. She was certainly the most talented and authentic of this "movement".

But this was exactly my point: The whole "exotica"-phenomenon was using an idealized image of escapism, exotism, supressed eros and the beginnings of weariness of civilization which was shaken to its core during WW2.

Is it possible that sleeves like "Legend of the Jivro" and "Voice of the Xtabay" made her famous back then, but make her intersting for "tiki", "lounge" or lovers of "camp" today?

"Camp" is not a new thing. This special reading of cultural code was intelectually defined by Susan Sontag in the sixties.
According to this, Yma Sumac is and always was "camp". She always used various influences and presented herself as a show-person and she is exceptionally good at it.

She is probably so beloved by the "silly new tiki crowd" because they recognize her immense musical and vocal artistry while being entertained by her extravagant and astonishing presence.

But in the end, Yma Sumac was always a purveyor of a fantasy "authenticity" that drew its influences from various sources.

The "courtroom-scenario" and the Vivanco/Baxter legends were all recited from various places. I am glad that you could debunk this.

However, many things I know of Yma Sumac came from the 45 minute feature that was done by German TV about her in the nineties. Maybe many things that were said in this program were incorrect?! I was always under the impression that Sumac was involved in the production.

I am very sad to read from you that Yma Sumac is severly ill and I hope that she will get better soon.

Until then, enjoy that she is forever discovered by a new, young audience who continue to be stunned, entertained, amused and moved by the extraordinary work of art that is Yma Sumac.
The are not many artists who deliver such a wide range of emotions.
It´s indifferent under which label people come to enjoy her art.