Friday, August 31, 2012

wacky tacky Icons: Yma Sumac

Yma Sumac
13 September 1922 - 1 November 2008

In high school my friend's house was the party house; they had a pool table, a soda machine, a deep fryer, a pool, giant televisions, and a jukebox.  Her parents were really cool in the eat-whatever-you-want-we'll-just-be-over-here-drinking-wine-and-dirty-dancing-to-"Mustang Sally" kind of way.  It wasn't quite the duck phone/miniature train set-up of Silver Spoons, but it was cool.  I truly thought the coolness ended with the bottomless platter of taquitos and the sodas dispensed from the machine with absolutely no quarters required; it was impossible for me to fully realize the depth of their cool until the day they fired up the jukebox and out throbbed the breathtaking, five-octave range of the "Peruvian Nightingale" - weightlessly trilling one moment and growling like an injured tigress the next.  I still get the chills anytime I hear the vocal talents of Yma Sumac.

"Taki Rari" - Yma Sumac

If Martin Denny was the godfather of Exotica, Yma Sumac was the reigning high priestess.  Purportedly the descendant of an ancient-Incan tribal chief, Yma Sumac considered herself royalty and operated as a princess in every aspect of her life.  I think that was part of her allure - the regal poise, the mysterious background, the exoticism.

"The first one to tell me I'm not an Incan princess is the first one to die."

I'm always thinking of topics for posts and was ashamed of myself when I hadn't thought of featuring Yma Sumac - until I got an email from a friend.  The email contained a link to a craigslist ad for a vintage television cabinet in the chinoiserie style.  The text of the ad indicated that this television once belonged to none other than Yma Sumac.  I battled with myself over calling the seller to see if it was still available, but ultimately decided against it because I just could not justify the expense for something that was so impractical.  As cool as the piece may be, I have no regrets because I like it much more for the provenance than the style.  Although, let's just say that if someone gave it to me, I would not be upset.

Coincidentally, as I was writing this post, my pal, Suzanne, over at Sweetie Suz, posted a wonderful blog about her most recent ebay purchase, a silver evening bag and matching gloves that belonged to the one and only Yma Sumac.  She brilliantly contacted the seller, who ended up being a close personal friend of Ms. Sumac, and asked if she could do an interview about his relationship with Ms. Sumac as fan, friend, make up artist, and confidant in the last years of her life.  Suzanne's post was so far superior to mine, with its first-hand information, that I thought about scratching this post altogether, but I figured too much Yma is just about right.

I was semi-familiar with Suzanne's interviewee, Damon Devine, only because I have followed his Facebook page devoted to Yma, Yma Sumac:The Final Recordings.  The page was created to highlight the previously unreleased recordings of Yma's later years but we are frequently treated to photos of the star and her gowns/costumes as well. 

A beautiful illustration of a gown designed for Yma

The star in the actualized gown

A legendary peacock gown

Even when draped in the familiar silhouettes of the time period in which they were created, each of Sumac's gowns spoke to something romantic and strange - the exotic!  As thrillingly-foreign as her look always was, it was really Sumac's voice that enchanted audiences and made her an international star.  So much is made of her vocal range, but I find her brilliance lies the amazing control she had over her voice; some notes have the vulnerability of an endangered tropical bird and others have the abandon of a primal scream.  Listeners may not understand the meaning of every word, but the dynamism with which she tells her dramatic stories becomes a musical Esperanto.

"Tumpa" - Yma Sumac

Yam Sumac appears on "Late Night with Dave Letterman" (1987)

Strangely enough, the only comparable star I can think of to Yma Sumac is Carmen Miranda.  They were both icons of exaggerated South American culture at a time when, thanks to The Good Neighbor Policy, Americans were just discovering the variety of beauty to be found there.  While Miranda represented the dazzling, carefree spirit of Carnival and the brilliance of sunny Rio, Sumac represented the dizzying heights of the Andes and the moody darkness of the deepest jungle.  If you have not made Yma Sumac a regular part of your record rotation, here is your call to repentance.  After all, the Brits don't have the market cornered on royalty, and we all could use an Incan princess in our lives, right?

Try it, you'll like it


Mr. Tiny


  1. Wow, do you think that peacock dress comes in my size?

  2. I've never heard anything like it! She's amazing, isn't she!

  3. I looooove her. The Mister introduced me to her music when we were dating and I was seriously like "where have I been all of my life??"

  4. I thought you might be interested to know that some of her belongings are being auctioned off on ebay.