Published Nov 04, 2008Incomparable singer Yma Sumac, one of the original purveyors of the exotica trend in music in the '50s, has died in Los Angeles at the age of 86. She had been diagnosed with colon cancer earlier this year.
Her biography was deliberately obscure. It was said Sumac was descended from the last Incan emperor, or alternately that she was a woman named "Amy Camus" under a pseudonym. It has since been proven that Sumac was born in Peru as Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo. She began singing at a young age and her style adopted imitations of birdsongs, giving her voice an otherworldly quality. Sumac began recording in 1943 and moved to New York with her husband Moises Vivanco three years later. Improbably signed by Capitol Records in 1950, she found herself at the vanguard of the emerging trend of exotica.
Sumacs air of mystery, striking looks and incredible vocal range made her an alluring pop culture presence in post-World War II America. She worked with accomplished arrangers Les Baxter and Billy May, who built up vivid orchestrations to frame her Spanish and Quechaun language songs. Her first album, Voice Of The Xtabay, is one of the all-time lounge classics, a veritable definition of the genre. At the height of her fame in the '50s, Sumac played Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, and also appeared in several movies. By the end of the decade, her career was in steep decline due to changing tastes.
Other than sought after psyched-out album Miracles from 1971, Sumac recorded and performed little from the mid-'60s onward. A few notable exceptions were here quirky rendition of "I Wonder (from Sleeping Beauty) on Hal Wilners Disney tribute, Stay Awake in 1987, and her much celebrated appearance at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 1997.
She is survived by a son, Charles, and three sisters.