She burst on to the pop music scene in the early '50s like a vision from some imagined past--the Sun Virgin, the Incan Princess, the Voice of the Xtabay. Even the more restrained of her admirers described her five-octave voice as one of the marvels of the age.
In those innocent, crewcut, "Father Knows Best" years, Yma Sumac was a living, breathing, technicolor musical fantasy--a kaleidoscopic illusion of MGM exotica come to life in an era of practicality.
Despite the rumors of press-agent creativity, she was not an overly made-up Brooklyn starlet named Amy Camus whose name, when spelled backward, became mysteriously fascinating. Yma Sumac was, and is, the real thing.
"Yes," she said last weekend in an interview at the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill, where she opens a two-week engagement tonight, "Yma Sumac is my true name, and I was born in the mountains of Peru."
Now in her early 60s, Sumac retains the high cheekbones, dark eyes and aristocratic nose of the striking young performer whose Capitol recordings virtually created a new genre of pop music. "The Voice of the Xtabay" and "Inca Taqui"--assembled by Sumac with her then-husband, composer/arranger Moises Vivanco from a variety of folk and original sources--were the first in a series of albums brightened with Latin rhythms and folk-based melodies.
"When we came here from Peru," Sumac explained, "my ex-husband, Moises, and I worked together to arrange our music so it would fit into the mentality and the psychology of the American people.
"We knew we were introducing something for the first time that was completely different from American music, so we worked very hard. We hired the best musicians and tried to give them the right inspiration for the music.
"Well, when Capitol Records heard the album, they didn't know how to describe it. Because the music is classical, while at the same time, it's very modern. And they didn't know what to call me. I wasn't a classical singer or a folk singer or a jazz singer--although maybe a little bit of all those things."
But the record-buying audience wasn't confused at all. The demand for Sumac's music has been strong enough over the years to assure that her albums have been continuously available in record stores since the early '50s. The earlier recordings, released first as 78 rpm albums, then issued, successively, as 10-inch LPs, 12-inch LPs and audiocassettes, are now available as CDs.
Sumac's visibility as a performer, however, decreased somewhat in the '60s and '70s. Spending much of her time in tours of Western and Eastern Europe and Japan, she was heard only occasionally in this country, despite almost continuous residence in Los Angeles.
In the late '70s, she became, as she describes it, "semi-retired."
"I went back to my family's farm in Peru," she said with a wry smile, "and told them 'I don't want to hear the words show business; I don't want to hear the word music. ' It was a beautiful time for me--a time to recover my health, after all those years of concerts and performances. When I sang, it was only for myself and for my family."
"Semi-retirement" came to an end in 1984, when Sumac was contacted by the determined musical revivalist and manager, Alan Eichler. Sumac was a bit reluctant, at first, uncertain that she still had an audience. Standing-room-only engagements at the Vine St. Bar & Grill and the Cinegrill in Los Angeles, as well as a highly publicized booking at the Ballroom in New York City soon made it clear, however, that Sumac fans were almost as devoted as Trekkies.
"It was amazing," recalled Sumac. "All these big stars of rock 'n' roll came to see me. And they all said they wanted to hear me sing the mambo, the mambo! I hadn't sung those songs for a thousand years and yet they still said 'You are an inspiration for us.' And they had all my records!"
Sumac's date book is full of entries these days. A return to Paris, Germany and Japan is on the docket for the fall, and she is one of many performers (Tom Waits, Suzanne Vega, Sinead O'Connor and Los Lobos are a few of the others) present on A&M; collection of Disney songs scheduled to be released in time for Christmas.