Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Yma Sumac - Voice of the Xtabay (1950) / Inca Taqui (1953)

Yma Sumac possesses one of the finest and most unusual voices of the 20th century. Its range spans somewhere between four and five octaves, depending on who you believe, and rivals that of any opera singer for power and clarity. All this is made more incredible by the fact that she never took a single voice lesson.

Supposedly the descendant of Incan kings, Yma Sumac was discovered by arranger and future husband Moises Vivanco in Peru and was promptly brought to New York to start making records. The result was so amazing that rumors started flying, the most notorious of which is that Sumac was actually a simple housewife from Brooklyn named Amy Camus. None of these allegations has ever been proven, however, and general consensus is that she is the real deal.

This two-fer collects her first two ten inch LPs onto one disc. Exotica king Les Baxter handles most of the arrangements and there is a bit of fifties kitsch combined with traditional Peruvian melodies that makes for quite a unique sound, especially in today's music scene when much of this style of music has been forgotten.

Of course, Yma's vocal acrobatics dominate the proceedings, leaping about in the stratosphere as well as growling deep, guttural bass notes. On one track, Chuncho (The Forest Creatures) I was astonished as what I was sure could only be a flute turned out to be Yma's voice. You really have to hear it to believe it. On the other hand, Tumpa (Earthquake) displays her lower register, evoking the track's title with aplomb.

Albums like this one are few and far between, a rare treat that literally sounds like nothing else in popular music. Much of Sumac's later work would become overly kitschy and watered down, but here she is in her element, and it shows.

Note: Yma Sumac died late last year at the ripe old age of 84. I hope her music will continue to be enjoyed and appreciated for many years to come.

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