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Yma Sumac: “Chuncho (The Forest Creatures)”

From the album Inca Taqui (1953)

Yma Sumac was the adopted name of the Peruvian soprano Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo (1922-2008). Even more sensational than her pedigree—she claimed to descend from Atahualpa, the last Incan emperor—was Sumac’s vocal range, which spanned over four octaves, from a husky baritone in the lower register to a keening coloratura in the upper reaches.

Though she was hugely successful at the height of her career and hailed as one of the most remarkable voices of the 20th century, Sumac is relatively unknown in comparison to famous divas such as Maria Callas. The reason for this neglect? Sumac lent her voice not to the mausoleum music of the European operatic tradition, but to the kitschy, novel, and wildly popular genre of exotica.

Sumac and her husband Moisés Vivanco came to the United States from Peru in 1946, and her first U.S. album was released in 1950, just ahead of the exotica wave that would soon sweep the country. This debut record, The Voice of the Xtabay, was conducted by Les Baxter, who would go on to record some of the genre’s landmark albums. Most of Sumac’s music, however, was composed by Vivanco, whom the liner notes for a 1996 re-release of The Voice of the Xtabay refer to as “an authority on ancient music, especially that of Peru.” This may be true, but the further claim that he “based his compositions and their arrangements on authentic Incan melodies and rhythms” seems unlikely, to be polite. The music of Sumac and Vivanco is thus an interesting example of what could be called auto-exoticism—that is, music produced by members of a culture which reproduces the expected stereotypes and adds the claim of primal, irrefutable authenticity.

Sumac’s most adventurous tracks, such as this one from her 1953 album Inca Taqui (Chants of the Incas), demonstrate the remarkable convergence between the more outré manifestations of popular music and simultaneous developments in the avant-garde: some of the vocal techniques here could be taken from the contemporaneous compositions of Berio or Stockhausen. “Chuncho” purports to mimic the rainforest menagerie of monkeys, jackals, and various birds. “The creatures of the forest taught me how to sing,” she told an interviewer in 1989.

Played 1,647 time(s).

August 03, 2012, 10:16am

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