Listen To This Before Your Next Nerd Date: Yma Sumac Nov14

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Listen To This Before Your Next Nerd Date: Yma Sumac


A blogumn by Clark Perry


If you’re on a date, never talk too much about someone else.

I date women (sorry, boys) and lemme tell ya, you certainly can spend too much time talking up other women. Doesn’t matter who it is: your dearly departed mom, your sweet sister or your favorite non-threatening lesbian beer buddy. Women don’t want to be overshadowed by any other female. They want to be the radiant center of your undivided attention.

This can be a problem when there’s a woman you simply have to talk about. This week, I’ve got one helluva woman to talk about so my dates are sure to go south pretty damned quick. This woman was everything that other women are not, and we will never see her likes again. I’m telling everyone about her: my friends, my neighbors, and my dates. And when I’ve blathered on for too long, I do what I should’ve done in the first place. I shut the hell up, pull out the headphones, cue up my iPod, and let the mystery lady speak for herself.

Her name was Yma Sumac (pronounced Eee-mah Soo-mack). She died last week in Silver Lake, CA, despite rumors that she’d long ago returned to her native Peru.

Yma Sumac made some of the most stunning music our ears will ever hear. She rose to creative and popular heights in the 1950s and 1960s with an uncanny brand of music I can only describe as Swank Lounge Meets Jungle Goddess.

“Lounge/Exotica” was one of the more interesting and ironic musical styles to emerge from the 1950s. As America’s suburbs became more uniform and bland, those shiny new hi-fi stereos needed to blast something to counter the homogenization. Artists like Martin Denny and Esquivel offered musical explorations of crazy jungle rhythms punctuated by innovative percussion and playful horns.

And then there was Yma Sumac. My words have never been weaker than they are in trying to describe Yma’s voice. Over lush orchestrations of sweeping grandeur comes Yma Sumac’s unforgettable five-octave soprano, a crystalline arrow that pierces your soul and pins it to the firmament.

Forget Mariah Carey. Fuck Celine Dion. Even my beloved Aretha can’t wear this lady’s bejeweled crown. Yma Sumac is hands-down the most magical and unforgettable female voice to ever grace pop music. Period.

Yma Sumac was not, as goes the legend, a Brooklyn girl born Amy Camus who one day decided to spell her name backwards, but I honestly can’t imagine the lady dismissing any rumor too strongly. Years before Madonna practiced the art of reinvention in pop culture, Yma Sumac was creating a songstress persona the likes of which had never before been seen.

Born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo, this Peruvian songbird took on a new name and a bewitching persona. Donned in flowing sinuous gowns, ornate headgear and bright jewelry, Yma presented herself as a “lost Incan princess” bringing to our modern society strange soulful music from ancient stone-hewn kingdoms. This was high camp to be sure and Yma loved it. Look at any photograph of her and you’ll find those sly, narrow eyes always smiling at us, letting us in on the joke.

Her persona may have been carefully crafted artifice but the music was no joke at all. It was thrillingly singular and genuine. Her two best albums, “Mambo” and “Voice of the Ixtabay,” are hallucinogenic and enticingly alien in their beauty. And I can’t even tell you what the hell she’s singing about. With a stunning five-octave voice, Yma Sumac could growl like Satchmo and, in the same breath, soar crystalline like a theremin. You can hear the entire range in songs such as “Chunchco (The Forest Creatures),” a 1950 track that floors everyone who hears it. Her voice was that of a rapturous angel, a keening devil, and every wild rainforest bird you can imagine.

Yma had several best-selling albums. She had small appearances in forgettable movies like Omar Khayyam and Secret of the Incas. She toured the world and made a small fortune (a stint in Las Vegas raked in more than $25,000 a week). In 1971, she released a little-heard psychedelic rock album that some say prefigured the screaming metal bands two or three decades away. But as she grew older, each appearance was followed by longer periods of silence. For reasons known only to her, Yma was withdrawing from the world.

Why did this amazing vocalist choose to live a life of obscurity, surfacing infrequently through the years for sporadic public appearances? That’s the mystery we’ll never understand. We can know the art but never the artist. What Yma brought to the world was music that nobody else could make. What pleasure she took from this world we can know only from the briefest of personal details. She knew love and apparently fought like hell for it, marrying and divorcing the same man twice before resigning herself to a solitary existence.

Yma enjoyed her steady cult of fans and saw her best work reissued in the resurgence of lounge and exotica music in the 1990s. Pop culture continued to smile on her with appearances on David Letterman’s show and, in the 90s, when one of her songs was included on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ comedy classic The Big Lebowski.

And then she was silent again. And then she was no more. The obituaries tell us that Yma died in an assisted living facility in the San Fernando Valley, that she was attended to by a small circle of loving friends, and that she had been battling cancer for some time.

In my mind and heart, I know this is not true. I saw it in a vision more real than the shimmering sunlit landscape I traverse each day. As primal drums picked up the rhythm of my own heart, I saw the heavens part incandescently and this Incan princess was lifted up by a multitude of songbirds. She was summoned back to the magical kindgom from whence she came. An ancient civilization, more powerful and lasting than our own, kindly let us borrow her voice for a little while.

And now I’m going to shutup and let the princess sing.

“Chunchco (The Forest Creatures)”

Yma Sumac – “Malambo No. 1”

Yma Sumac – “Taki Rari”