Yma Sumac, “Hollywood’s Inca Princess,” dies at 86

Yma Sumac, the Peruvian-born singer whose extraordinary multi-octave vocal range, exotic looks and stage personality made her an international sensation in the 1950s, died over the weekend following an eight-month battle against colon cancer, Peruvian media reported.

Sumac, 86, died at an assisted-living home in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.

“It is with deep sadness, that we report that Yma Sumac passed away at 11 a.m. on Saturday Nov 1. It was peaceful. Those closest to her were at her side,” Damon Devine, Sumac’s personal assistant, wrote on Sumac’s official Web site.

“A very, very private funeral will be held at an undisclosed location. Per her and her closest relative’s instructions, she will be interred in Hollywood, where she spent 60 years of her life.”

Also known as the “Peruvian Songbird” and the “Nightingale of the Andes,” Sumac released her first album, “Voice of the Xtabay,” with Capitol Records in 1950. She rapidly soared to the top of the charts, selling half a million copies.

Sumac’s elaborate costumes, exotic beauty and extraordinary more-than-four-octave voice that could imitate the cries of birds and other wild animals made her one of the most famous proponents of exotica music.

“Yma Sumac had a very unusual voice,” said Enrique Bernales, President of Peru’s Poetry Association. “She sang the highest and lowest notes in one single song… she was the only one capable of this prodigy.”

During the subsequent decade, Sumac, who never had any formal training and was unable to read music, became a lounge music icon, recording albums of westernized, Hollywood-inspired arrangements of Inca and South American folk songs with producers such as Les Baxter and Billy May.

Sumac was featured in the 1951 Broadway musical “Flahooley” as a foreign princess who brings Aladdin’s lamp to an American toy factory to have it repaired. She also appeared in the films “Secret of the Incas” in 1954 and “Omar Khayyam” in 1957.

Sumac’s life has always been clouded in self-manufactured mystery.

Though she claimed she was born 2,000 years ago, to an ancient Inca emperor, Sumac was born in the northern highland town of Ichocán on Sept. 13, 1922, according to The Castafiore Inca, a French documentary about her life. Other birth dates mentioned in her various biographies range from 1921 to 1929.

Baptized Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo, she later changed her name to Yma Sumac, derived from Ima Shumaq, Quechua for “how beautiful.” In interviews, however, she said that it meant “beautiful flower” or “beautiful girl.”

During her heyday, a popular story claimed that she was actually born Amy Camus – Yma Sumac spelled backwards – in Brooklyn or Canada.

Sumac first appeared on radio in 1942, and married composer and bandleader Moisés Vivanco that same year. They then moved to New York City, performing as the Inca Taky Trio, before Sumac was signed by Capitol Records in 1950.

Though her fame fell off in the 1960s, Sumac released a rock album, “Miracles,” in 1971, and her music was used in films such as “The Big Lebowski,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and “Death to Smoochy.” It was also sampled by popular bands, such as the Black Eyed Peas.

In 2006, Sumac was presented the Orden del Sol award by Peru President Alejandro Toledo and the Jorge Basadre medal by Lima’s San Marcos University.

She is survived by her son, Charles, and three sisters, who live in Peru.

Sharing is caring!

Comments are closed.