Today is the 98th birthday of the charismatic singer Yma Sumac. I am a sucker for reinvention stories and she has a great one: Peruvian girl with exceptional singing talents comes to Hollywood and becomes an Incan Princess with an absolutely riveting stage presence. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Yma Sumac
BIRTH DATE: c. September 13, 1922
DEATH DATE: November 1, 2008
DID YOU KNOW?: At the height of Yma Sumac’s career, she gave sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, and received $25,000 per week to perform in Las Vegas, Nevada.
PLACE OF BIRTH: Cajamarca, Peru
PLACE OF DEATH: Los Angeles, California
ORIGINALLY: Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo
REMAINS: Buried, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, CA
BEST KNOWN FOR: In the 1950s, Peruvian singer Yma Sumac impressed audiences worldwide with her four-octave vocal range. She performed on albums, at concerts and in films.
Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo was born in Cajamarca, Peru, circa September 13, 1922 (her birth year has also been given as 1925 and 1927). She grew up in Peru—in a family she described as being descended from the Incan emperor Atahualpa—and began performing in Lima before moving to the United States in 1946. There, she embarked upon a singing career as Yma Sumac.
With a voice that spanned more than four octaves—Sumac herself said it covered five—she became a successful singer in New York City, appearing in clubs, as well as on television and radio. Sumac also performed on the “Borscht Belt” circuit. Then the release of her popular first album, Voice of the Xtabay (1950), along with her 1951 appearance in the Broadway musical Flahooley, turned her into a star.
Promotional materials highlighted Sumac’s Incan heritage, and she usually maintained an exotic appearance by donning heavy jewelry and flamboyant clothes. The focus on her background may have prompted a backlash, as an unsubstantiated rumor that Sumac was actually the Brooklynite Amy Camus (Yma Sumac spelled backward) began to spread. However, the rumor did not keep people from wanting to hear her sing.
Sumac’s impressive vocal range—stretching from baritone to high soprano—was heard at the successful concerts she gave across the United States, Europe and South America. She put out a number of hit albums, such as Mambo! (1954) and Fuego del Ande (1959). She also appeared in the films Secret of the Incas (1954), which featured Charlton Heston, and Omar Khayyam (1957).
In 1942, Sumac married composer Moises Vivanco, who had worked with her in Peru at the beginning of her career. Vivanco accompanied Sumac to the United States, and also performed with her in the Inca Taqui Trio before she became a successful solo artist. In the 1950s, the two divorced, as Vivanco had had twins with another woman. They remarried, but a second divorce followed in 1965. Sumac and Vivanco had one son, Charles.
As the 1960s progressed, Sumac’s popularity declined. Though she sometimes gave concerts in the following decades and released an unsuccessful rock album, Miracles, in 1972, she mostly withdrew from performing. Her music continued to be heard on film soundtracks, including The Big Lebowski (1998). The documentary Yma Sumac: Hollywood’s Inca Princess (1992) also sparked further interest in her career.
In recognition of her accomplishments, the government of Peru honored Sumac with its Orden del Sol (Order of the Sun) in 2006. She also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In February 2008, Sumac was diagnosed with colon cancer. She died in Los Angeles, California, on November 1, 2008, at the probable age of 86.