Few popular singers have boasted a five-octave range. Even fewer have claimed they were descended from the last Inca emperor and schooled in song by “the creatures of the forest”.
And fewer still have appeared in a Charlton Heston film that helped inspire Indiana Jones, toured the USSR, been namechecked in Vanessa Paradis’ Joe le Taxi, won a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and been adopted as an LGBTQ+ icon.
But then very few singers have ever possessed Yma Sumac’s flair for shredding borders, genres and expectations.
Today, almost 100 years after the birth, the late Peruvian singer and her otherworldly voice could be on the verge of another revival thanks to a Madrid-based record label which hopes to introduce new generations of listeners to some of the greatest female Latin American singers of the second half of the 20th century.
Sumac’s 1952 album, Legend of the Sun Virgin, will be the first record released by Ellas Rugen (They Roar) Records, which was founded by Jalo Nuñez del Prado, a Peruvian music producer who has lived in Madrid for five years.
Nuñez del Prado, 34, first came across Sumac’s music while browsing flea markets in Lima as a teenager. As he got older, he realised what an international “avant garde phenomenon” she had been and became fascinated with her story.
Born Zoila Emperatriz Chávarri Castillo in Peru in 1922, Sumac took her stage name from the Quechua words for “how beautiful”. Together with her husband, agent and composer, Moisés Vivanco, she became one of the biggest names in the gaudy, dramatic and lushly other genre known as Exotica, which blossomed in the 1950s.
Sumac’s extraordinary voice, striking looks and carefully packaged heritage – she claimed to be a descendant of Atahualpa, the Inca emperor garrotted by Pizarro and his conquistadores in 1533 – propelled her to international fame. They also gave rise to the urban myth that she was actually a woman from Brooklyn called Amy Camus who had simply reversed the letters of her name.
She and Vivanco toured the world in the 1950s and 1960s, and Sumac appeared in the 1954 film Secret of the Incas, in which Charlton Heston plays a roguish treasure-seeker who wears a brown leather jacket and a fedora hat.
However, as Nuñez del Prado points out, while Sumac and Vivanco found fame exporting their vision of Peru to the world, their work was not always well received in some intellectual circles back home, where it was considered a vulgar pastiche of Peru’s rich indigenous culture.
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“A lot of those people came from very conservative folk schools and didn’t understand that you could create a hybrid that would transcend all that,” says Nuñez del Prado.
“Yma always had that little battle with Peru and she wasn’t honoured by the country until 2006 – even though she’d helped mythologise Peru. She was a pioneer when it came to spreading Latin American culture around the world from the late 1940s – she laid the first stone.”
After divorcing Vivanco, making a rock album in 1971, becoming a favourite of San Francisco’s gay community and slipping into semi-retirement in the 1980s and 1990s, Sumac died of cancer in Los Angeles 2008.
Twelve years before her death, one US paper described Sumac’s work as “a South American travelogue scripted by Disney, directed by [Salvador] Dalí”.
Carmen McEvoy, who teaches Latin American history at the University of the South-Sewanee and has spent the past few years writing a biography of Sumac and Vivanco, offers a slightly more nuanced appraisal.
“The vision of Peru that Yma and Moisés brought to the world wasn’t, as many people think, one that was made in Hollywood,” says McEvoy.
“While it’s true that they arrived in Hollywood at the height of the Exotica trend, both of them were bearers of an incredibly rich cultural capital that was acquired over the course of many decades and based on a re-reading and appreciation of Peruvian indigenous culture.”
McEvoy, who grew up listening to her parents’ Yma Sumac records in Peru, and wrote the sleeve notes for the reissue, attributes some of the singer’s enduring popularity to the fact that Sumac and Vivanco “remain a mirror for all those who are forging their identity across borders that are not just geographical but also cultural”.
For Nuñez del Prado – who has also worked to raise the profile of Peruvian Chicha music and is part of an agency dedicated to rescuing and restoring phonographic catalogues – the project is about redressing an ongoing cultural imbalance.
He is working on an album by Lucha Reyes, sometimes described as the Edith Piaf of Peru, while other reissued artists will include Olga Guillot from Cuba, Estelita del Llano from Venezuela, Mexico’s María Victoria Cervantes, and Las Tres Marías from Ecuador.
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The eventual aim, adds Nuñez del Prado, is to get out records by at least three female artists from each country in Latin America.
“We’ve always been very colonised by Anglo-Saxon culture in Latin America – everything that comes out of the US and England,” he says.
“That stuff is great and I love it, but people in Latin America forget – or just don’t know – about all the people from there who crossed so many borders when it comes to popular culture. We were also making super cool music in the 1950, 1960s and 1970s. But we’ve spent so long listening to rock from abroad that we think that’s all there is.”