Friday, October 19, 2012

Muse: Yma Sumac.

My current mood soundtrack and October inspiration is Yma Sumac. Her magical blend of latin, gypsy, and mystic influences makes her the ideal Hallows Eve fashion inspiration.  Born September 13, 1922 , she was a strikingly beautiful, otherworldly Peruvian soprano who skyrocketed to famedom in the 1950s as an idol of the Exotica music genre. Her haunting voice and extreme five octave vocal range paired with her Peruvian costuming and chiseled features made her an iconic latin chanteuse. The expressive, free tone of her voice, the exotic meld of global sounds, and the mysterious song arrangements all gave her an air of mystic, supernatural power. A single song often contained her high chirping sounds, deep guttural notes, and jazz-like rhythmic phrases over a North American or South American tribal beat. 

She was born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo (phew...) in a seaside city, listening to the sounds of her environment intently. She said that chasing her father's goats in the mountains of the Andes, at that high altitude, developed the powerful lungs she later used for belting out otherworldly sounds.  She also spent her days imitating the surrounding nature and delving into her local folklore, providing her endless inspiration for her music. As she grew into a teenager, she began to practice her singing in front of audiences at local folk ceremony performances. She was quickly noticed and chosen to sing in the famous Inty Raymi festival (feast of the sun), in 1941, in front of 25,000 people. That attracted attention from a government employee, who recommended her talents to the ministry, which brought her to Lima at age 19 to begin her opera training. 

In 1942 she got her big break on radio and soon after married bandleader Moisés Vianco. Her early work consisted mainly of Peruvian folk tunes, which she took with her to New York. By 1946, Vianco and Castillo performed New York City as the Inka Taky Trio, with Sumack singing soprano, Vivanco on guitar, and her cousin Cholita Rivero singing contralto and dancing. She was able to sing notes in the low baritone register as well as notes above the range of an ordinary soprano. Both low and high extremes can be heard in the song Chuncho (The Forest Creatures) (1953). She was also apparently able to sing in an eerie "double voice". Her characteristic sounds were those that she developed in her childhood in the Andes:  high chirps and low groans reminiscent of the birds and dogs she was surrounded by.  She continued to perform under her birth name until cracking through the cultural barrier in the 1950s when Zoila adopted the stage name Yma/Imma Sumac based on her mother's name which is an indiganous name relating to beauty. 

Yma painting in bottom left corner via: 100 greatest ever

Yma developed a style that reflected her Indigenous Peruvian roots, but in the style of 50s Exotica, also incorporated Spanish, European Gypsy, and Middle Eastern influences.  She typically wore her hair in two braids, adorned with wire wrappings, or loose covered by a scarf or headdress.  She wrapped herself in bright colors of deep, saturated tones, often using scarves, shawls, and capes.  I can only imagine what Yma's full jewelry collection looked like (which I heard, sadly, was recently available on ebay but was removed due to lack of interest!).  She had pendants of Latin American Indian imagery: Sun bursts, representing the Sun God, and various carving motifs.  From cocktail rings to brooches to wrist cuffs to headpieces, she curated a stunning collection of silver and gold stamped pieces to accent her woven Indian shawls and tops.  When she dressed more traditionally in the modern European/American style, she wore hour-glass hugging cocktail gowns in deep stunning colors, fur stoles, capes, and dramatic jewelry. 

1950s New York was ripe with the influences of Latin music-- so much so that even all-Jewish or all-Italian bands were forming Mambo groups to keep up with the dancehall demands. Lounge music, with its exotic and latin influenced beats, were all the rage and Yma was discovered, signed to capital records, and cut an album. Her work soon went the direction of atmospheric Hollywood versions of the Incan and Spanish folk songs she loved, and she found herself working with Lounge kings like Les Baxter and Billy May. Cast as an exotic, otherworldly beauty, she had roles on broadway and film. In 1955, she became a US citizen and in grand Hollywood style, made the tabloids with her on again off again relationship with Vianco through the rest of the 50s and 60s.

She completed 9 albums, the last released in 1971. Sumac's career from the 60s on was marked by sporadic stage appearances and international tour dates through 1997. Her death from colon cancer at age 86 followed 10 years later. She was interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in the "Sanctuary of Memories" section.


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