Yma Sumac’s voice should be familiar through sampling a wide range of songs. From The Black Eyed Peas’ “Hands Up”, to Robin Thicke’s “Everything I Can’t Have” and even Vanessa Paradis’ “Joe le Taxi”; Yma’s bewitching voice has also been featured in films such as The Big Lebowski and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the TV series Mad Men, and also a lengthy list of commercials. Her name is not. For me, Sumac was a feature of the resurgence of lounge music in the late 80s and early 90s resurgence, and I remember needing to hear her voice over and over, simply because it blew my mind. But for many, Yma Sumac remains largely unknown.
Opera singer Ali McGregor became fascinated with Sumac in the late 90s while living in London. Part of her new obsession with the exotic singer, McGregor studied Sumac’s voice and the history of one of the 50s biggest stars Capitol Records selling millions of albums worldwide and performing at venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall and The Royal Albert Hall. She even came to Sydney in the early 50s with her band, the Inka Taqui Trio to perform at Chequers nightclub in the Cross. Sumac sang soprano, Vivanco was on guitar, and her cousin Cholita Rivero sang contralto and danced.
Sumac rose to fame in the early 50s with her exotica sound – her voice was said to span six octaves (McGregor says it’s 4.5) whole other great singers span only three. She made bird noises in high ranges and could also sing deep and low. Her voice was a precious instrument and unparalleled. The albums sound like a soundtrack for a 50s-era jungle epic. With a spectacular back story – she claimed to be descended from Incan royalty, directly from Atahualpa, a claim formally supported by the Peruvian government – a true diva was created.
Sumac reached her peak in the mid-50s, but when rock’n’roll hit the US in the late 50s, it signalled the end of lounge and Sumac’s bookings started to dry up. She wasn’t going down quietly – the diva embarked on a three-month-tour of the Soviet Union and won a new audience.
In reality, Sumac was a woman of her time, like her contemporary Doris Day. She was managed by her husband who cheated on her and then stole her money. Married at 19, she was naive and taken out of her rustic land; a story we hear time and time again. She was not on any song-writing credits and though her music is still earning royalties today, she saw none of it throughout her life. Her only child, Charlie, was discovered not to be her own, but her cousin and best friend Cholita’s, fathered by her husband Moises. She adopted the child and did not divorce her husband for this transgression but stayed with him until he fathered twins with her assistant. She then divorced him, remarried him, and finally divorced him for good. He moved to Madrid after their tour of the USSR.
McGregor has managed to replicate the Sumac sounds and performance, which is part storytelling of the legend of Sumac and her own experiences in discovering her story, and part singing her most famous numbers. Her voice is a wonder and impressive for its dexterity.
To say that McGregor is obsessed with Sumac is an understatement. Since discovering her voice in the 90s, she has devoured every written word about her, including uncovered film footage, as well as developing a relationship with Sumac’s former assistant. Most impressively, she has acquired many pieces of Sumac’s original jewellery – some of which features in the show. She has replicated her stage costumes, including an incredible headpiece. McGregor says while it looked great on record covers, it was not something to comfortably sing in, owing to its bejewelled ear flaps.
Throughout the performance we are mesmerised by the growing energy of McGregor – from telling the story of Sumac as a star-struck fan to singing her songs as the woman herself, and her voice is truly worthy of the star.
We see some clips of Sumac at the end of the show including outfits McGregor has replicated. Sumac in her later years resembled Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. She was a diva, and while we are unfamiliar about her incredible mid-century fame, it’s hard to realise how big she was. As McGregor says, she was selling more records for Capitol than anyone else – and that was no mean feat when Capitol also had Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra on its books.
McGregor is funny, warm, and her passion is infectious – I came home wanting to devour everything I could about Sumac, together with McGregor too!
Yma Sumac: The Peruvian Songbird is part of the Sydney Opera House’s Festival UnWrapped which runs from Friday 3 – Sunday 19 May featuring the very best independent Australian performances from cabaret to dance, theatre and more. For more information visit Sydney Opera House.
Feature image: Clare Hawley