Yma Sumac: Inca Princess Diva of Lounge
Everyone has their favorite summer tunes. Those songs that just say beach, barbecue and fun. But how many of you have summer songs that conjure up critter-filled jungles, exotic natives pounding drums and forbidden rites? You would if you had as much Yma Sumac on your iPod as I do! Yes, when days get warm and meat starts hitting the barbie out comes Yma Sumac.
It’s been that way since I was four. Because Yma Sumac is really an icon of my parents’ generation. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, when High Fidelity and stereophonic sound were first coming into their own, there was a sudden demand for recordings that let audiophiles show off the full sound range of their equipment. Enter a subset of what we now know as Lounge, which was called Exotica. Exotica could be loosely recognized by a couple of criteria: it conjured up foreign locales, preferably uncharted and with a jungle; and it included all sorts of esoteric percussion instruments like native drums, Marimbas, Burmese gongs and Japanese kotos. (Extra points for the inclusion of animal and bird sounds.) As you can tell from that list of instruments, authenticity was not important. Exotica, in the words of leading practitioner, Martin Denny, was “a combination of the South Pacific and the Orient…what a lot of people imagined the islands to be like…it’s pure fantasy though.” And if those Polynesian drums were paired with Cuban vocals and Congo bird calls, so much the better.
It was a little early in the decade to use the word “Trippy”, but Exotica certainly was. However, the drug of choice when listening was a Mai Tai, a Zombie or any drink that might be served in a Tiki mug at Trader Vic’s.
Suffice it to say that by the time my brother and I were old enough to get into Dad’s record cabinet, it was filled with the giants of Exotica: Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman and Esquivel. But the Queen of the cabinet was Yma Sumac and she was a featured performer at all my parents’ cocktail parties.
Yma Sumac, a Peruvian soprano, billed herself as a Quechua Inca princess, directly descended from Atahualpa, the last Inca Emperor. Don’t tell me she wasn’t. I need her to be! If Yma Sumac recordings aren’t piped in from all corners of Machu Picchu, I’m not going.
Her amazing five octave range was built to order for an audiophile like my Dad. In the span of one song, Yma Sumac would trill beyond the highest range of a Mozart coloratura, then swoop down several octaves to what seemed like bass-baritone range. She could out-scat Ella Fitzgerald with a variety of pseudo Spanish/Indian vowels, high trills and low Jaguar-like growls. She could even throw in a “double voice” like a Tuvan Throat Singer. Did anyone know what she was singing? Did it matter? It all conjured up some weird amalgam of voodoo ceremonies, jungle rites, Polynesian fertility dances and Cat People spookiness. Excellent. Hand me a Samoan Fog Cutter with a Pu Pu Platter on the side.
Sadly, the lady is no longer with us. She died on November 1, 2008, aged 86, after a long career of International acclaim. (She was surprisingly popular in the former Soviet Union which is the last place you’d expect to find Tiki afficianados.) At least she lived to see a big revival of Exotica and her recordings in the late 1990s.
But Yma, you’ll live on forever at more adventurous backyard barbecues everywhere. I lift a Tiki mug with pineapple garnish and a little paper umbrella to your unmatched talent.
Note: You’ll find Yma Sumac well represented in all her acrobatic vocal glory on many of the Ultra Lounge collections. Find them on iTunes and at Amazon.
Here’s a clip from a French documentary that was made toward the end of Yma’s life featuring one of her greatest: Mambo No. 1. Listen all the way through to get the true Yma Sumac Experience.