Yma Sumac, Unusual Peruvian-Born Singer Who Appeared in Flahooley, Dies at 86

Obituaries   Yma Sumac, Unusual Peruvian-Born Singer Who Appeared in Flahooley, Dies at 86
Yma Sumac, the improbable singing star of the 1950s who claimed to possess a five-octave vocal range and ancestors who could be traced back to the Incas, died Nov. 1 at an assisted-living home in Los Angeles after an eight-month bout with colon cancer. She was 86.
Yma Sumac
Yma Sumac

Ms. Sumac's career was suffused with self-manufactured mystery. She was born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo on Sept. 13, 1922 (other accounts say 1927), in Ichocán, Cajamarca, Peru, but a popular story that circulated during her heyday had her beginning life as Brooklynite Amy Camus. In the early years of her career, she went by Imma Sumack, Ymma Sumack and Ima Sumack. All the names were based on her mother's name which was derived from Ima Shumaq, Quechua for "how beautiful." She capitalized on the Inca lineage story by dressing in the manner of an exotic princess, and made a movie called "Secret of the Incas" with Charlton Heston.

Her first album for Capitol, "Voice of the Xtabay" in 1950, sold half a million copies. Listeners were bewitched by her warbling, almost unearthly song stylings, backed by pulsating Latin rhythms. Wrote a reviewer at the time, "Not being a musician I can't adequately describe the motion of sound in the number called 'Birds.' It begins in contralto, takes on the peculiar sounds of the birds, coasts along on coloratura and ends in what I would call a dirty trumpet howl."

During the subsequent decade, she became a lounge music icon, recording albums of westernized arrangements of Incan and South American folk songs with producers such as Les Baxter and Billy May. Her exotic, sultry looks, with high cheeks bones, raven hair, dramatic eyebrows, and heavily made-up, almond-shaped eyes added to her allure. She played Carnegie Hall, starred in films, and, in 1951, acted in the musical Flahooley as a foreign princess who brings Aladdin's lamp to an American toy factory to have it repaired.

The show had a score was by Sammy Fain and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. But Ms. Sumac's four numbers were written by her husband since 1942, bandleader Moisés Vivanco. Ms. Sumac returned to the stage in 1990 to play the role of Heidi in Stephen Sondheim's Follies, in Long Beach, CA.

Her fame fell off in the 1960s. She had a resurgence of sorts in the 1990s, as lounge music became popular again. Her songs were used in films like "The Big Lebowski," "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and "Death to Smoochy" and sampled by the Black Eyed Peas. But she performed only sporadically and remained a recluse, entertaining few friends. She and Vivanco divorced in 1957. Ms. Sumac is survived by their son, Charles.

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