Yma Sumac #exotica #hispanicheritagemonth

Was the Queen of Exotica really descended from the last Incan Emperor, or was she just Hollywood hype? The answer is a little bit of both.

During the 1950’s, advances in stereo recording meant a brand new opportunity for labels to promote artists in a way never before heard, literally. The initial wave of these recordings was so dramatic that Billboard magazine actually kept two sets of LP sales charts: one for mono recordings and one for stereo.

Attempting to further capitalize on this new technology was also a wave of music geared toward adults called Exotica. Much of it was Hollywood promotional gimmicks, with many white artists, in a sense, appropriating various cultures around the world. African, Caribbean and Hawaiian themes were very common. Cutting through the din was Yma Sumac, a woman who claimed to be descended from the last Incan emperor, Atahualpa. 

Yma Sumac, 1950, taken from the photo shoot that resulted in the cover for her debut LP, The Voice of the Xtabay. Courtesy of Capitol Records.

The thing is, she was actually from Ichocan, Peru, and her claim of descenancy was supported by the Peruvian government in 1946, several years before she actually achieved fame in the United States. Mentored by her husband and bandleader, Moises Vivanco, they moved to New York City to attempt to break into the U.S. market, and played around town in several high profile gigs waiting for their big break.

In 1950, Capitol Records released her debut LP, The Voice of the Xtabay, which saw her her demonstrate her truly unique gift: she had a five octave vocal range, and could go from guttural, throaty tones up through extended coloratura that would have made most opera singers sound inferior by comparison. By contrast, most very good singers possess a three octave range at best.

As the Exotica fad waned by the end of the decade, she went into semi-retirement. She would release a Rock album in the 1970’s, and when the Exotica craze came back into vogue in the 1990’s, she ended up playing back in New York City for weeks at a time just to keep up with ticket demand. She left us in 2008, but her legacy lives on. Her music has been featured in numerous films over the last several years, including cult favorite The Big Lebowski.

First Part

  • Xtabay (Lure of the Unknown), 1950, The Voice of the Xtabay
  • Jivaro, 1957, The Legend of the Jivaro
  • Birds (original mono single mix), 1951, single A-side (rereleased on Flahooley, 1957)
  • Najla’s Lament (original mono single mix), 1951, Birds single B-Side rereleased on Flahooley, 1957)
  • Incacho (The Royal Anthem), 1953, Inca Taqui
  • La Molina (The Mill Song), 1959, Fuego Del Ande
  • Gopher Mambo, 1954, Mambo!
  • Monos (Monkeys), 1950, The Voice of the Xtabay
  • Karibe Taki, 1952, Legend of the Sun Virgin

Second Part

  • Chunco (The Forest Creatures), 1950, The Voice of the Xtabay
  • Panarima, 1952, Legend of the Sun Virgin
  • Babalu, 1952, single A-side (with Martin Denny)
  • Wimoweh, 1952, “Wimoweh” single B-side (with Martin Denny)
  • Malaya! (My Destiny), 1956, Zpívá Yma Sumac
  • Sejollo (Whip Dance), 1957, The Legend of the Jivaro
  • Bo Mambo, 1954, Mambo!
  • Nina (Fire Arrow Dance), 1957, The Legend of the Jivaro
  • Incan Carnival, 1954, Mambo!

Finale

  • Atapura (High Andes!), 1950, The Voice of the Xtabay
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Love to you all.

Ben “Bear” Brown Jr., owner
www.aospdx.com

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