Obituaries

Yma Sumac, 86; Postwar Sensation Had Unique Voice

Sumac, a folk entertainer, claimed to be a descendant of the last Incan emperor.
Sumac, a folk entertainer, claimed to be a descendant of the last Incan emperor. (The Washington Post)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008

Yma Sumac, a Peruvian folk entertainer with an astonishing vocal range who surged to fame in the 1950s with an "Incan princess" mystique that captivated millions of record-buyers in search of exotic sounds, died of cancer Nov. 1 at an assisted living facility in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles.

She was believed to be 86, according to personal assistant Damon Devine, who said he had seen the birth certificate.

Nearly every biographical aspect of Ms. Sumac's life was long in dispute, including her age, her town of birth and her ancestral claims that on her mother's side she was a descendant of the last Incan emperor, Atahualpa.

Fueled by an intensive publicity machine, the rumors grew so thick at one point that she was jokingly rumored to be a "nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn" who had merely reversed her name, Amy Camus.

Ms. Sumac (pronounced EEE-maw SUE-mack) thrived during a postwar period of American music when the exotic was hip and the composer Eden Ahbez ("Nature Boy") was briefly in vogue.

Los Angeles Times music critic Don Heckman once called Ms. Sumac "a living, breathing, Technicolor musical fantasy -- a kaleidoscopic illusion of MGM exotica come to life in an era of practicality."

Onstage and off, Ms. Sumac adopted a regal poise and stretched back her raven hair to make her haughty cheekbones even more pronounced. She was fond of flamboyant clothing often laden with gold and silver jewelry, and she spoke of her musical influences among jungle animals.

"At night in my bedroom I hear the whoo-whoo of the little birds and I hear the dogs barking very sad," she told People magazine. "That's what I put in my records. I don't bark bow-wow, but I bark whoo, and I sing like the birdies."

As an interpreter of Andean folk-influenced songs, her voice sailed, growled, roared and yelped effortlessly across four octaves -- from bass to soprano to coloratura soprano. She was adept at mimicking animal calls, from toucans to jaguars, and one never knew where she would dot melody with quick, piercing high-D notes.

"She's either got a whistle in her throat or three nightingales up her sleeve," said a bassist with whom she recorded early in her career.

Composer Virgil Thomson found her voice "impeccable" and recommended her for "the great houses of opera."

Ms. Sumac extended her heyday through the late 1950s with albums for Capitol Records, selling hundreds of thousands of copies.


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