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Yma Sumac


Yma Sumac by Carol Sawyer :

Sometime in the late 1960s, unable to sleep in the oppressive heat and humidity of a Washington D.C. summer night, I wandered downstairs to watch television with my father. There, on the small black and white screen, a beautiful woman was undulating around on a large rock in Machu Pichu, singing with a voice that ranged between a baritone growl and high bird-like chirpings. The woman was Yma Sumac, the singer with the four + octave range, billed in both the film and in real life as an Inca princess, Chosen Maiden of the Sun God.

It is hard to find an article on Yma Sumac that does not betray some skepticism, fueled by rumours that she was originally a housewife from Brooklyn named Amy Camus (Yma Sumac spelled backwards). There is no evidence to support this, however, and her early career in Peru is well documented. Her Inca royalty and sun god religion also seem to be irrefutable.

In the 1950s, an era when Hollywood was busy creating new ethnicities for everyone from Doris Day (born Doris von Kappelhoff) to Yvonne de Carlo (nee Peggy Middleton), it was probably easier for an American audience to believe that Sumacs identity was the product of some publicists over-heated imagination than to believe that she really was a direct descendent of Atahuallpa, the Inca murdered by Pizarro in 1553.Film producers and talent agents were caught flat-footed when their Hollywood-nurtured ideas of Indian-ness and Latin-ness collided with Ms. Sumacs pride in her Quechua heritage.

MGM turned her down for a part in a Clark Gable movie because she didnt look like an Indian, to which Yma is said to have retorted, could she have the part if she wrapped herself in a blanket, braided her hair, and hopped around grunting How and Ugh? A New York talent agent incurred her wrath when he suggested that she was the Spanish senorita type and he could get her some bookings if she wore a red satin dress and did her hair up in spit curls (Poling, 61).

Interestingly, her unusual voice has generated a similar kind of confusion. The head of the music department of Auburn university, Dr. Hollace E. Arment, is quoted in a 1950 article in Colliers magazine as stating in all seriousness that Ymas voice may be a throwback to a more primitive era, and theorizes that until the 12th century , voices of much greater range... were taken for granted (Poling, 19). Although his postulating is, at first glance, fraught with romanticized western notions of the primitive, he may be on to something. Sumacs incredible voice makes me wonder how much our natural vocal ranges are limited by our socially conditioned ideas of what sounds are considered appropriate, based on gender, notions of politeness and social decorum?

When I listen to Yma Sumacs recorded voice, I am struck by its excessiveness: it seems as if she is completely free of pre-conceived ideas of what female vocal limitations are supposed to be. Her ability to sing well down into the bass-baritone range, territory that women are strongly discouraged from exploring if they study singing in the Western classical tradition, is particularly striking. (Voice teachers have been known to forbid singers who possess Queen of the Night high notes from using the lower part of their register, for fear that they will lose at the top what they gain at the bottom.) The rich timbre of her voice in this low range, comparable to Nina Simones or Betty Carters, but even deeper, is startling when combined with the operatic flute-like coloratura of her highest notes. She sounds like a pan pipe, a bird, Louis Armstrong, Dame Joan Sutherland. She trills, she growls, she chirps, she mesmerizes. She sounds like she is having a lot of fun.

When I listen to her, I want to sing.