Thursday, November 13, 2008

YMA SUMAC: The Queen of Exotica 1922-2008

Yma Sumac, the Diva Exotica, the Celine of strange, the Barbra of the bizarre, passed away recently, thus ending the original exotica era - she was the last surviving member of the Mount Rushmore of exotic music after Les Baxter, Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman had all moved on to that big tiki bar in the sky.

Sumac was one of my favorite singers. I don't mean favorite exotic or ethnic or '50s singers, I mean favorite singers, period. She possessed an otherworldly, technically astounding multi-octave instrument that moved from death-metal growl to operatic ecstasy - sometimes within one song. She often didn't even seem to sing lyrics, but created animal sounds and other indescribable special effects with her voice.

Hailing from Peru, South America, she lived here in Los Angeles and was a fixture in LA's jazz/cabaret clubs throughout the '80s and early '90s, though her reputation rested almost solely on a handful of '50s releases, beginning with the Les Baxter produced classic "The Voice of the Xtabay" (pronounced "SHTA-bay") in 1950 for Capital Records. The mixture of lush orchestrations, energetic Latin/ethnic percussion, weird atmosphere, and Yma's whooping, swirling, alien voice produced some of the most remarkable albums of the '50s.

Yma Sumac "Kuyaway (Inca Love Song)"
from "Legend of the Sun Virgin"

Yma Sumac "Five Bottles Mambo" (yes, actual bottles are used as percussion)
from "Mambo!"

Yma Sumac "Dale Que Dale! (The Workers Song)" (almost a surf/twist-rock beat to this one)
from "Fuego del Ande"

Yma Sumac "Jivaro"
from "Legend of the Jivaro"

And that was about it. She toured throughout the '60s, from whence comes an obscure live album released in the early '90s of a performance in the Soviet Union (how she pulled that off during the Cold War I do not know.) On this song, twice as long as the original version on "The Voice of the Xtabay," she really dumps everything out of her bag of sonic tricks, vocally imitating the wildlife of the Amazon.

Yma Sumac "Chuncho"
from "Live in Concert 1961"

She returned for one last album, "Miracles," in 1971, reuniting with Baxter for...wait for it...a psychedelic rock album. She still sang the way she always did, only this time over heavy guitars. Take that, hippies!

Yma Sumac "Medicine Man"

She made one last recording in 1988, a surprisingly normal version of a Disney song for a various artists comp.

Yma Sumac "I Wonder" (from "Sleeping Beauty")
from "Stay Awake"

The '90s lounge revival produced this excellent remix. I'm not usually too crazy about marketing-driven remixes of old classics, but I did really like this one:

Yma Sumac "Gopher (Mambo) [Qburns' Abstract Message remix]"
from "Electro Lounge"

From Poland of all places came this mashup from a few years ago:

El Barto & Liam B "Planet Mambo" (Yma vs Afrika Bambatta)

See Yma in action! From the 1954 Charleton Heston film "Secret of the Incas."

THIS JUST IN! Just got a note from Nick Limansky, author of the new book Yma Sumac: The Art Behind the Legend . He's a classically trained singer, and, incredibly, has been working on this project since 1980. It looks to be an essential part of any Maniac's library.


Alex said...

this is a wonderful tribute to Yma, who is one of my favorites too. things just aren't the same ever since she left the planet.

Greg Bishop said...

In the late 1980s, I actually saw Ima Sumac perform at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Her voice was as good as ever, but she was only on stage for about 15 or 20 minutes. Maybe it's all she could muster up before her voice went. In any case, I count myself very lucky.

Thanks for the retrospective!

Mr Fab said...

Yeah, she used to play the Cinegrill a lot. That place was expensive. Didn't she do mostly things like showtunes?

Greg Bishop said...

Yeah, it was expensive, which made the crowd doubly cheated since she was on stage for such a short time. I don't remember her doing showtunes, but I guess I was so dumbstruck that I didn't remember what she sang.

Greg Bishop said...

I meant it made the crowd FEEL doubly cheated.