After a while, all the stories people tell about the music world start to sound the same. This white guy started working at this studio and the artists they found were great. This guy started writing songs with his friends and they became famous. It’s all so formulaic that it starts to get a little boring, and you start to mix all those white guys into one amorphous nerd who is hunched over some guitar or studio for way too long. So even the existence of Yma Súmac, the Peruvian Princess descended from the last sovereign ruler of the Incan Empire, Atahualpa, is a joy to discover in a world of white sameness.
Born in 1922, when she was 20, Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo took the name Yma Súmac, and began performing with her incredible five octave range to stunned audiences. Recording a grip of songs in Argentina at a radio station in 1942, she parlayed these recordings into a deal with a local label, which garnered her popularity locally, making her the most in-demand act around. But Yma had bigger plans: America.
She married a composer, and together they set out for NYC in 1946, performing around town in local clubs as a trio, with her cousin rounding out the group. Four years of gigging started to build their reputation, and the reputation of her incredible range was enough to make Yma an important act to be seen in the early ’50’s for anyone hip. Capitol Records finally came calling and signed her, thinking that she would make a good pair with this other kook they had, Les Baxter. And, in a rare turn of events, someone at a Record Label was right. Together they made her first album, Voice of the Xtabay, which not only introduced America to a new form of music, referred to as Exotica, but introduced the World to her incredible talents.
Her fame was instantaneous. She performed at incredible venues: The Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall, The Royal Albert Hall, The Roxy Theater, Las Vegas nightclubs, The Mikado Theater in Japan. She landed roles in film and on broadway. She toured South America, Europe and Africa, performed for The Queen of England, and did shows with Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye and Marlene Dietrich, where they opened for her.
She was, after all, an Incan Princess, a fact that was supported by the Peruvian government in press releases, no less! Her record contract was immediately lengthened, and she continued to belt out records that spoke to the Tiki zeitgeist that was moving through the country at the time, during the golden age of velvet paintings and mixology. She was the perfect combination of sex and chanteuse, a beautiful and delicate bird that would sing songs that were so fantastic that it would send chills down your spine, and make you couldn’t help but dance.
While her husband was always there for her, initially Capital didn’t want him composing the work Yma released, which was a pity because when he was finally given that chance in 1954, it was clear that the resulting record – Mambo! – was one of the high water marks of her career. It was the perfect balance of traditional music with a US perspective, and embraced the current fads of mambo and exotica in a way other, whiter artists were unable to grasp. “Chicken Talk,” while not being particularly about chickens, is like much of the music on that album: Yma sings using her incredible range, with incredibly hip and danceable music backing her along the way.
This lifestyle worked perfectly for Yma, and straight through to 1961 she toured extensively, and released seven fantastic records. The years were not great to her career in the end. As the sixties began to be dominated by rock music, exotica lost sway among music fans, and she spent much of the rest of her life in and out of vogue, depending on the trend of the moment. She would perform here and there, and even put out a couple of albums when nostalgia began to grip the culture, but it was clear that The Princess was ready to retire, letting new divas take the stage and the throne, for better or for worse.
In a way, she had conquered the world for a brief period of time, had traveled through most of it and had surveyed her people and their customs, and having ruled it as well as she could, it was time for her to retire to her mansion in LA, always a princess, and to this day, the woman with the biggest range in history.
When’s THAT movie coming out?