On the trail of Yma Sumac: The exotica legend came from Peru, but her career was all Hollywood
As a Peruvian kid growing up in Southern California, I’d pick through my father’s record collection, between the LPs of Peruvian creole waltzes and Mexican ballads, to admire a strange album by an alluring woman dripping in jewelry, posing before an erupting volcano.
The album was “Voice of the Xtabay.” And the woman was Yma Sumac, the Peruvian songstress with the four-octave voice that launched the musical genre known as exotica, a cinematic fusion of international styles that allowed mid-20th century audiences a taste of the mysterious and the remote.
Sumac was the imperious, raven-haired Inca princess — “descendant of the last of the Incan kings,” according to lore — who maintained an extensive wardrobe stocked with sumptuous gowns, her crimson lipstick always applied to perfection. It was this Peruvian girl’s ultimate fantasy.
It was also a piece of fiction. Yma Sumac may have been from Peru. But her exotic Peruvian persona was invented in Los Angeles.
“Hollywood took this nice girl who wanted to be a folk singer, dressed her up and said she was a princess,” says her biographer, Nicholas E. Limansky, author of “Yma Sumac: The Art Behind the Legend.”
“And she acted like it.”
“Voice of the Xtabay,” the 1950 album that introduced her to global audiences, seemed like otherworldly evidence of her power.
It opens with the smash of a gong, ringing in “Taita Inty,” a song described as a “traditional Incan hymn that dates back to 1000 B.C.” (Never mind that the Inca civilization didn’t get rolling until more than 2,000 years later.) It segues to tunes like “Tumpa,” full of guttural scatting that evokes a wah-wah trumpet. All of it is held together by Sumac’s operatic trills, which could leap from low growls to high-C coloratura that sounded as if it could shatter glass.
“She took Peruvian traditional music, set it in the popular music vein and sang it with the voice of a coloratura soprano but infused it with jazz and blues,” says Limansky. “It’s a fascinating concoction.”
With composer Les Baxter setting Sumac’s Andean stylings and symphonic interludes against groovier beats, “Xtabay” bore no resemblance to any Peruvian music I grew up with or have heard on any trip to Peru. (Gongs, for one, are from Asia, not the Andes.) The album sounds more like a soundtrack for a ’50s-era jungle epic, featuring melodies that beg for a rum drink in a ceramic Polynesian tumbler. It was irresistible.
Added to this were the machinations of the overheated publicity department at Hollywood’s
Among them: that the album’s title song, “Xtabay,” was about the legend of a “young Incan virgin” who had a “forbidden love” with a “high prince of an Aztec kingdom.” No such legend exists.
Audiences, however, ate it up. So did I. To me, Sumac was a rare representation of the Andean in U.S. popular culture (albeit one distorted by the funhouse mirror that is the entertainment industry). And it was a representation soaked in glamour.
Sumac’s boom years were in the ’50s and ’60s, but thanks in part to Capitol’s epic myth-making, she had a surprisingly long career. performing into the 1990s, when she was well into her 70s.
Her first significant appearance, at the Hollywood Bowl in August 1950, was received with astonishment followed by rapturous applause. From there flowed numerous albums — including my favorite, “Mambo!” from 1954 — as well as performances all over the U.S. and Europe. In 1960, she undertook a historic 40-city tour of what was then the Soviet Union that lasted for months.
Over the course of her life, Sumac appeared on television talk shows from Steve Allen to
Today, eight years after her death at age 86, Sumac remains the subject of fan sites, Pinterest pages and Facebook groups. She’s inspired a veritable rabbit hole of lip-sync videos on YouTube. (One by Argentine actor Luciano Rosso, looking piratical, is particularly delirious.) Last fall, she received the ultimate digital nod when she was featured as the Google Doodle on the 94th anniversary of her birth.
Sumac could have easily gone down in the history books as a musical footnote. And if she’d remained a run-of-the-mill folk singer, she probably would have. But the combination of her beauty, her unusual music and the colorful stories that surrounded her transformed her into a legend with a devoted cult following. (I was once chastised on social media by a fan for not being sufficiently reverent.)
The high camp didn’t hurt either — the feathered headdresses and eyeliner on fleek — not to mention her stage design, with Styrofoam volcanoes and totems. A Times review of a 1955 concert at the Shrine Auditorium notes her “phenomenal voice” as well as “a touch of the ridiculous,” namely a set studded with “pillars of fire.”
“She was unique in the combination of things that she embodied,” says Peruvian anthropologist Zoila Mendoza, chair of UC Davis’ Native American studies department and daughter of a woman who was close friends with Sumac as a teen. “It was a whole fantasy.”
Sumac was born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo in Peru’s Cajamarca region of the northern Andes on Sept. 13, 1922. (She later took the stage name Imma Summack, her mother’s name, which morphed into Yma Sumac after her move to the U.S.)
She was not, as one Parisian publication once wrote, raised in a “miserable hut of dried earth.” In fact, her well-to-do family included a physician and a judge. Her father was involved in local civic affairs; her mother was a school teacher.
“Definitely she was elite in the area,” says Mendoza, who’s studied indigenous performance in the Andes and written about Sumac.
As a teen, Sumac moved to Lima to go to school. It was there in Peru’s capital that she met Moisés Vivanco, a noted folk musician who would shape her early career — and whom she would ultimately marry and divorce (twice). One popular Sumac legend, crafted by the fabulists at Capitol Records, has Vivanco traveling for days to a “remote mountain region” to seek out the singer known for “talking” with the “birds, the beasts, the winds.”
Not quite. Vivanco met Sumac at a rehearsal in Lima, where, after hearing her sing, he invited her to participate in a folkloric event.
L.A. is full of people like her. People like Angelyne — these self-invented people.
— Joy Silverman, former director of LACE
All of this raises the issue of Sumac’s supposed Inca lineage. Her mother’s surname, Atahualpa, was that of the last Inca emperor. Whether that made Sumac a real-deal royal (or someone who could even claim indigenous identity) is unknown.
She likely spoke some Quechua, one of the principal indigenous languages of the Andes, as did most people who then lived in the highlands. But she was a fair-skinned mestiza, a mix of Spanish and Indian. “She was white compared to most Andean people,” Mendoza notes. “She had green eyes. She and my mother were very close friends. My mom also has green eyes. So they were these two pretty Andean women with green eyes.”
But Sumac emerged at a time when Peru was paying more attention to its indigenous roots. The wide dissemination of the archaeological wonders at Machu Picchu after 1911 brought attention to the country’s resplendent Inca past.
“In that context, the whole institution of folklore emerged,” says Mendoza, referring to the burgeoning industry built around Andean indigenous music. Recordings were made, radio programs launched and festivals held.
Sumac’s early repertoire reflected this musical current, including, for example, huaynos, brisk Andean highland ballads featuring strings and flute. (Some of these are in the 2013 compilation album by Blue Orchid Records: “Early Yma Sumac: The Imma Summack Sessions.”)
“By the time Yma Sumac came about, there was a whole infrastructure that allowed her to become a national figure,” Mendoza explains. “Before that, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Incas in the deli
Sumac and Vivanco became well known in Peru and had successful engagements in the important Latin American media centers of Argentina and Mexico. A successful recital at Mexico City’s prestigious Palacio de Bellas Artes came at the invitation of Mexico’s president. In 1946, the pair moved to New York City, figuring that their success in Latin America boded well for the U.S. market.
But American audiences weren’t exactly rushing out to see Andean folk music. Sumac’s early years in New York, as part of a group called the Inca Taqui Trio, were spartan. They played supper clubs, Borscht Belt resorts, business conventions and, for a time, a delicatessen in New York’s Greenwich Village, where a magazine writer for Collier’s would later write that Sumac could be found performing “in a back room richly blanketed with the aroma of pickled herring, salami and liverwurst.”
Hollywood took this nice girl who wanted to be a folk singer, dressed her up and said she was a princess. And she acted like it.
— Nicholas E. Limansky, biographer of Yma Sumac
The trio nonetheless developed a following. One local television appearance sparked the interest of a talent agent who helped Sumac land a deal at Capitol. The Inca Taqui Trio was too folkloric for the label, so the label instead built an album around Sumac’s voice.
Enter: Exotica master Baxter, and a post-World War II U.S. public ready to be seduced by fantasy.
Also, enter: Los Angeles.
The record deal necessitated a move to Southern California, and by the late 1940s the couple were comfortably ensconced in tony Cheviot Hills on L.A.’s Westside. The move was key in Sumac’s metamorphosis from talented folk singer to Inca exotica pioneer.
“I don’t know if this could have happened in another city,” says Limanksy. “New York has Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera ... famous classical institutions, and things were geared around that. But in Los Angeles, you had the film industry and everything that entailed. Her whole transformation, it does smack of Hollywood. ... It was very cinematic.”
The tarted-up Inca princess identity was not something that Sumac was initially wild about. “She wanted to be a folk performer,” says Limansky. “She really didn’t like it at all.”
But once Sumac re-invented herself, forced like many performers to create a new sound in the name of success, she embraced the role with haughty grandeur. Known for striding on stage as if she’d arrived to reclaim her empire, she demanded the undivided attention of her public. In later years, she’d storm off if spectators so much as opened their mouths.
“She looked like a princess and she acted like one,” says Limansky, who attended some of her New York shows in the ’80s. “She was entertaining, but not in a ‘let me get in your face and laugh with you’ kind of way. … She was very formal with the audience.”
This regal quality translated to her roles in Hollywood films.
In 1954, she appeared in the Charlton Heston adventure flick “Secret of the Incas” as Quechua maiden Kori-Tika. In it, Sumac gives a pair of surreal mountain-top performances at Machu Picchu. She also throws serious side eye at Heston’s European love interest, played by Nicole Maurey. When Maurey tells her, “You speak English very well,” Kori-Tika replies cattily, “So do you.”
It’s a very different depiction from that other mid-century South American icon, Carmen Miranda, “the Brazilian bombshell,” seen as the flirty Latin party girl in the towering fruit hat. Sumac was way too royal for that.
Interestingly, Sumac’s noble persona (a role some say she came to believe) was built around ideas of Inca culture that had blossomed during Peru’s indigenist period ideas that weren’t always rooted in fact.
“When she became a folkloric artist in the ’30s, there had been a couple of decades in Peru of composers and musicians who had been creating symphonies and these really sophisticated pieces of music based on an invented idea of what the Inca sound was like,” says Mendoza. “It had very little to do with what contemporary indigenous people were actually playing.”
Sumac was channeling a concocted notion of Inca identity as an invented Inca princess. A fiction born in Peru adds another layer of fiction in Hollywood, and from that fiction rises Yma Sumac. What could be more Los Angeles?
“L.A. is full of people like her,” says Joy Silverman, director of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions through most of the ’80s. “People like Angelyne — these self-invented people.”
In the late 1980s, Silverman asked Sumac to perform at a LACE fundraiser when the organization was located in downtown L.A., a pioneer in what is now the thriving Arts District.
“She was exactly what you would imagine,” Silverman says. “You were in the presence of this dramatic Peruvian songbird. She was never out of character.”
Around the same time, Sumac also appeared — in sleek shades and plumed hat — in one of l.a.Eyeworks’ iconic magazine ads, part of a campaign that featured entertainers such as
“It was Yma Sumac — we had to do it!” says l.a.Eyeworks co-founder Gai Gherardi, who recalls a petite woman of monarchical bearing with a taste for bananas. “Her image, she knew what it looked like, and she lived up to it.”
In her late years, Sumac played regular cabaret engagements at the now-defunct Cinegrill and the Vine St. Bar & Grill jazz club, not far from her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (She’s the only Peruvian with that honor.) Her cabaret shows brought out a crowd that author Tom Lang, who worked at Vine St. in the ’80s, describes as “Sunset Boulevard on ayahuasca.”
“The pre-show atmosphere was anticipatory, a legend returns,” he says via e-mail from Bali, where he now lives. “Opening night, sold out. A group of tiny Peruvians, impeccably dressed, at one table. [Pianist and author] Leonard Feather in his regular booth (throne). Bill Murray and his entourage, up front.”
Sumac was an uneven performer in those years — with good nights, as well as terrible ones, her voice cracking, her temper foul. The show at Vine St. was one of the latter. “I wanted to take her off the stage and hug her and tell everyone else to leave her alone,” recalls Lang.
There are other L.A. stories, too. About her taste for El Pollo Loco and her shopping trips to Bullocks Wilshire. “She must have had 300 pairs of vintage shoes from throughout the ’50s,” recalls her friend and former assistant Damon Devine, who runs the tribute website yma-sumac.com.
The singer, who was sold to American audiences as a wonder from a strange land, was, in the end, just another grand dame living on the Westside (she later moved to West Hollywood), who might enjoy an afternoon of listening to Eurodance with her assistant.
Ultimately, it was in L.A., the city that made her who she was, that Yma Sumac would ultimately come to rest.
Not long ago, on a warm afternoon, I paid a visit to Sumac’s grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It’s in the same mausoleum as Iron Eyes Cody, a second-generation Italian American performer also known for a manufactured indigenous identity. (He frequently played a Native American in the movies and told the press he was Cree and Cherokee.) In another part of the building lies Constance Talmadge, the silent-screen star.
My father used to roll his eyes at Sumac’s claims of Inca nobility. But Los Angeles, a mestizo city and land of the faux historic, requires a ruler. Why not Sumac? In the photo displayed on her tomb, she is perfectly made up, wearing an indigenous textile and earrings as big as chandeliers. Just like an Inca queen.
FOR THE RECORD:
March 24, 2017, 4 p.m.: An earlier version of this story reported that Yma Sumac was the only Peruvian with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She is one of two; radio personality Pepe Barreto is the other.
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