Yma Sumac, Incan Princess and Legendary Singer

Updated on July 9, 2018
Jeanne Grunert profile image

Jeanne Grunert is a freelance writer and marketing executive who lives and works on a 17 acre farm in Virginia.

The Incan Princess Turned Cabaret Singer

The Peruvian government confirmed her status as a descendent of Atahualpa, the last Incan emperor, making her a princess. At the height of her career, her voice spanned five octaves, an almost unheard-of gift even for a coloratura soprano. Yet today, few young people know of the so-called Songbird of the Andes: Yma Sumac.

Yma Sumac was born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo in an Indian village high in the Andes. Her family was solidly middle class; her mother was a teacher, her father a civil servant. Little Zoila was the youngest of six children and spent much of her time wandering the fields near her home in Ichocán, Peru.

It was here that she cultivated her natural vocal talents by mimicking the calls of birds. In later life, Sumac claimed her extraordinary voice developed thanks to the high altitude of the Andes. Singing at such a high altitude, she said, built her lung capacity and helped her expand upon her innate talents.

Yma Sumac, Vocal Range B2 - C7

Early Career

Sumac adopted the stage name Imma Summack and then changed it to Yma Sumac in 1942. The name is based on her mother's maiden name, Ima Shumaq, a Quechua (Indian) name which means "how beautiful." Later on, Sumac claimed the name mean "little flower" or "beautiful flower."

She began her singing career around 1942, recording several tracks of native Peruvian folk songs and singing on the radio in Argentina. Composer Moisés Vivanco at that time had a troupe of 16 Indian singers, dancers and musicians, and Sumac's music became part of a 1943 recording featuring Vivanco's troupe.

She married Vivanco and toured South America and Mexico with his group, performing mostly native songs with the troupe. Although their performances were favorably reviewed, they did not achieve much success. She gave birth to her only child, a son named Carlos, in 1949.

By 1950, Yma Sumac signed with Capitol Records. At this point, she recorded her first album, Voice of the Xtabay, which launched her sensational career.

Yma Sumac's Movie Appearance, 1954, "Secret of the Incas"

Career Highlights

The 1950s were the perfect time for an entertainer like Sumac. Cabaret-style performances were in vogue, the more exotic the better. And what more exotic than an Incan princess with a five octave range who could sing birdlike trills and drop into jungle growls all within the same measure?

Yma Sumac's performances were a spectacle for eye and ear. The stage was often set like an Incan temple, with Sumac rising from the stage to sing her famous songs. Sometimes she sang in Spanish, but often in her native Indian dialect, giving an even more exotic air to her songs.

She popularized Spanish danish like the mambo and others with recordings such as Gopher Mambo, Bo Mambo and others. You may recognize some of the tunes from commercials of the day; their exotic appeal was used to sell everything from cigarettes to liqueurs.

Sumac was famous as a performer, touring the world and singing on stages including Carnegie Hall, the Russian national stage, and the Hollywood Bowl. At the height of her career, she sang over 80 concerts a year, touring the world.

Her exotic beauty, extraordinary singing voice, and commanding stage presence made her a super star before the term 'super star' was in vogue.

A story about Sumac's talent underscores just how astonishing she was in person. According to legend, she was in Italy at the opera when a maestro scoffed at her 'untrained' voice. She then listened to the leading soprano singing a classical piece and, without any rehearsal, sang it back to the Maestro, note for note, word for word. She was that good.

Yma Sumac Singing "Gopher Mambo" One of Her Hits

Yma Sumac's Voice: Style, Training, Talent

Sumac's B2 - C7 range is thought to be one of the few examples of a woman's voice spanning into both the baritone/bass range and the high soprano or flute range. She is the only known singer to ever hit a triple coloratura, or the trill of the birds. She once sang, in concert without rehearsal, a duet with a flute, reaching E6.

A New York Times article described hear voice as both rumbling and flute-like, moving easily between the deepest portion of the contralto range to the highest heights of the soprano range.

The normal voice range for a trained singer is two octaves; Sumac spanned four, with some contending she reached five. Several recordings of her voice indicate a five-octave range. The best example is the song "Chuncho". At the height of her career, she sang concert after concert without any visible sign of strain to her voice.

Although not a true coloratura soprano, her low range was described as warm, velvety and exotic. Her high range could be shrill at times, but her nimbleness and stage presence froze audiences in their seats.

Sumac was asked many times whether or not she had any professional training. She claimed to have none - no voice lessons, no music lessons, nothing. As a girl, she sang to the rocks and hills of the Andes. As a teenager, she performed with her family, singing along with cousins who were also wonderful singers and musicians. She claimed that the high altitude of the Andes forced her lungs to work harder, thus strengthening them for performance.

Sumac Sings "Chuncho" Demonstrating Her 5-Octave Voice

Later Life

Sumac performed well into her 70s, with her last performance in 1997. You can hear her voice on everything from Disney soundtracks (she recorded a song for the Disney movie Sleeping Beauty) to, of all things, the Black Eyed Peas, who sampled Bo Mambo for their song "Hands Up."

In 2006, the President of Peru awarded her the Orden del Sol and the Jorge Basarde medal. She died of cancer in 2008 at the age of 85, still a legend and a voice for the ages.

© 2018 Jeanne Grunert


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