Music

Yma Sumac, RIP

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Yma Sumac died Saturday at age 86. There may have been, at some point in human history, a singer with a wider vocal range than this woman. But that singer never entered a recording studio.

From the L.A. Times obituary:

With her exotic beauty, elaborate costumes and singing voice that could imitate the cries of birds and wild animals, the woman who claimed to be a descendant of an ancient Incan emperor offered Eisenhower-era audiences something unique.

If all the political coverage starts getting oppressive today, go over to YouTube and click through a bunch of Sumac's performances, which should prove that those "Eisenhower-era audiences" had a taste for stranger fare than many potted cultural histories would lead you to expect. If you want to begin with a familiar tune, start here.

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  1. Damn! That woman has a voice that reminds me of another Eisenhower-era instrument – the theremin.

  2. i was surprised to learn she wasn’t already long dead. my understanding is that the incan stuff is b.s. and she was born Amy Camus (spell it backwards) from like a New York Jewish family or something.

  3. ok but then i just looked it up and i’m wrong. that story is b.s. she’s peruvian.

  4. I was actually just listening to Voice of the Xtabay a couple day ago. She really did have an incredible voice.

    Jesse, in honor of Ms. Sumac, you should do an Exotica-themed Titicut Follies. Although tbh, I don’t know if I could listen to 3 hours of vibes and bird calls.

    RIP, Yma

  5. I read about this on Sunday. Breaks my heart. She’s the ultimate performer of that 50s exotica/jungle kitsch genre of the past. RIP.

  6. Ya gotta hear Yma to believe her, but if you want background check out this site from Hyp Records “Vinyl Safari, http://www.hipwax.com/music/exot_ys.html

    The site contains the fascinating nugget that “Two leaders of the proto-beatnik, jive “scat” school of jazz vocals, Slim Gaillard and Cecil Young, both had hits with songs making fun of Yma Sumac’s ululations.” Further nugget-Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie first recorded together as Slim’s accompaniement. Poppity-pop goes the motorcycle!

    The Vinyl Safari’s home page (http://www.hipwax.com/music/) has tons of links to other Eisenhower exotica, best enjoyed while sipping a zombie in a skull mug from Trader Vic’s (Nixon’s favorite restaurant).

  7. A good source for Sumac stuff.
    http://xtabaysworld.blogspot.com/

    A true loss.

  8. I’m totally bummed out by this, but the photo gallery from the LA Times obit is raising my spirits.

    Yma Sumac slaps the maid!

    Yma Sumac attacks a PI!

    Yma Sumac displays her shiner!

    Apparently her bitter divorce was a media sensation!

  9. Alan: I’ve heard that Slim Gaillard record. I interpreted it more as affectionate ribbing than anything mean-spirited, but I may just be in denial about the fact that all the musicians I like really hate each other.

  10. About as listen-able as Klaus Nomi.

  11. One of the many sins of the awful generation known as the baby boom is its slandering of the 1950s. The 1950s were a vibrant and interesting cultural decade where african american and latin cultures first started to interact with mainstream white culture. You never hear that because dickhead, ignorant baby boomers have to convince the world that everything interesting happened in the 1960s and as a result of babyboomers.

  12. Actually, Hogan, her real name was Sumac Yam, after a food-plant indigenous to her native village.

  13. Hi, well Yma Sumac was her artistic name, is a phrase in quechua, inca language, which means “so beautiful”, her real name was Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Ch?varri del Castillo, and of course she is peruvian, even though many peruvians don’t know who she was

  14. Go for it, Hogan!

  15. Damn! That woman has a voice that reminds me of another Eisenhower-era instrument – the theremin.

    The theremin was invented in 1919. In no way was it Eisenhower-Era.

    You never hear that because dickhead, ignorant baby boomers have to convince the world that everything interesting happened in the 1960s and as a result of babyboomers.

    Please, John. If you had been the age you are now in those days, you’d have been at the front of the line to denounce the artists you’re talking about as utterly lacking merit at best, and propaganda from dangerous Commies and Pinko anti-Americans at worst, just like you denounce today’s art.

    Oh, and remember one thing when you’re talking about how wonderful the 50s actually were; if the 50s had been as good as you say they were, the 60s would never have happened.

  16. “Please, John. If you had been the age you are now in those days, you’d have been at the front of the line to denounce the artists you’re talking about as utterly lacking merit at best, and propaganda from dangerous Commies and Pinko anti-Americans at worst, just like you denounce today’s art.”

    Fuck off shem. You moron. You can’t even read and understand my post letalone project my attitudes to the 1950s. I never said the 50s were great. I said they were interesting, which is different than good. Certainly the start of and the darkest days of the cold war were not good. The point is that many of the things that 1960s takes credit for actually started and happened in the 1950s. The 1950s were not Ozzie and Harriet. It is slander on the decade to call them such.

  17. “Oh, and remember one thing when you’re talking about how wonderful the 50s actually were; if the 50s had been as good as you say they were, the 60s would never have happened.”

    No, if the 50s hadn’t happened, rise of rock and roll, Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock, the beat movement, and so forth, there wouldn’t have been a 1960s.

  18. So sad! She was the Bjork of the 1950s.

  19. Not all of your parents’ music sucked. Like your generation’s, just 90% of it.

  20. “Not all of your parents’ music sucked. Like your generation’s, just 90% of it.”

    The 50s had A Kind of Blue, the Ray Charles Atlantic recordings, All of the stuff from Sun Records, the best Muddy Waters, Bo Didley, Chuck Berry. The list goes on and on. I am not convinced at all the music was better in the 60s than it was in 50s.

  21. This is sad news! Bummer.

  22. “Not all of your parents’ music sucked. Like your generation’s, just 90% of it.”

    The 50s had A Kind of Blue, the Ray Charles Atlantic recordings, All of the stuff from Sun Records, the best Muddy Waters, Bo Didley, Chuck Berry. The list goes on and on. I am not convinced at all the music was better in the 60s than it was in 50s.

    John,
    I think you missed JsubD’s point.
    There is great music from every decade.
    Cross decade comparisons are ridiculous.

    FWIW, just due to sheer volume, since the advent of recording, each decade puts out more good music than the last in terms of raw hours of good music. The percentage of good vs. bad probably doesn’t shift a whole lot.

  23. The theremin was invented in 1919. In no way was it Eisenhower-Era.

    You must not have watched many 1950’s schlocky scifi movies, have you?

  24. How sad! She was one of the great ones.

  25. Supposedly, Jim Gillette of the ’80s hair band Nitro could shatter glass with the falsetto end of his vocal range. He’s a vocal teacher now, I believe, and married to Lita Ford.

    I’m not sure his range would compare to Ms. Sumac’s though. She was truly remarkable. I’ve always thought Flora Purim had quite a range at her peak in the ’70s, but nothing like that.

    As to the ’50s, sure there was a lot of schlock. But think of all the great R&B and jazz performers who were working then, and all of the titans of classical music, such as Horowitz, Heifetz and Milstein, who were still in their primes in the ’50.

    The classical avante-garde was at its peak then, and the decade also saw the birth of free jazz. Artistically, I think you could argue that there was a much higher standard in the ’50s than today, even though there might be more cultural freedom now. In fact, people were probably more likely back then to support culture with their hard-earned dollars than they are now. Nowadays, the joke goes that the best way to make a million dollars in jazz is to start out with two million dollars.

    Television was mostly a vast wasteland then, as it is now. But there was plenty of good cinema then to go along with the bad.

    There was a lot bad about the ’50s–sexism, racism, all the “isms”, basically. But there were a lot of good things about the decade, too, and many of the good things we enjoy today are the result of things that started or were furthered back then.

  26. John: Get the hell off my lawn.

  27. John, must you continually remind us that you are an asshole to the core, making up shit as you go along to shore up your war against the filthy hippie hoards. Nobody mentioned babyboomers until you brought them up. The only person to even pretend to speak for them is you, even if it’s a caricature you spun in your mind.

    The 1950s were a vibrant and interesting cultural decade where african american and latin cultures first started to interact with mainstream white culture.

    Not even close. Unless you want to redefine the word “decade” to extend up to the advent of recorded music and radio, or even vaudeville. Latin and “negro” music were well entrenched in pop culture well before the magical decade you mention.

  28. That line about the “Eisenhower 50s” is almost as hackneyed as the “Leave it to Beaver 50s”; because we all know that the entirety of human history was a bland sexless hellhole until the Beatles appeared on Sullivan.
    Boomers will also dismiss 50s Rock’n’Roll, but they’ll moan about that greatness of The British Invasion, which was just limeys covering…50s Rock’n’Roll. How many of these grey-pony-tailed fools still think The Stones wrote “Not Fade Away”? Carl Perkins made a lot of money from The Beatles padding their albums with his songs…but hey, they have the media now, and they can paint the decade of their spoiled-brat upbringing in completely negative terms.

  29. >the unregistered voter | November 4, 2008, 1:10pm | #

    >>The theremin was invented in 1919. In no way was it Eisenhower-Era.

    >You must not have watched many 1950’s schlocky scifi movies, have you?

    “The Day The Earth Stood Still” is schlock?

    “Forbidden Planet” is schlock? (I know, I know, it wasn’t _all_ theremin, but some).

    The theremin can be as evocative and sublime an instrument as any, in talented hands. Check the documentary “Theremin”, from several years ago – a real, honest Soviet Spy thriller with a happy ending!

  30. FWIW, just due to sheer volume, since the advent of recording, each decade puts out more good music than the last in terms of raw hours of good music. The percentage of good vs. bad probably doesn’t shift a whole lot.

    10/90. Sturgeon’s law.

  31. JsubD,

    Sturgeon Slaw…sounds like it would be good on rye.

  32. I only knew her from crossword puzzles.

    Now that I’ve actually heard her, I definitely need to seek out some of her music. Did she ever work with Esquivel? That would have been fantastic.

  33. I’m in a state of grief and shock. A few months ago I devoted a web site to my favourite movie SECRET OF THE INCAS, and in the last six months three of the movies leading actors have died.

    R.I.P. Charlton Heston, Michael Pate and Yma Sumac.

    See colour photos of the great Yma Sumac on my site:

    http://www.secretoftheincas.co.uk

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