"Yma Sumac...the Voice of the Incas"
by Ray Palmer and Jack Ross
Vol. 4, No. 8, 1951
They have said she was born
in Brooklyn. They have also said she was born in the village of Ichocan,
16,000 feet high in the Andes of Peru.
They call her Yma Sumac, but they have also said
that her name is Imma Summack, and Emperatriz Chavarri, and Amy Camus.
The official story is that she, is an Inca princess,
direct descendant of Atahualpa. Yet she speaks good English, with only
mild traces of a Spanish accent.
To those who doubt the official story there is in
the files of the Peruvian consul in New York, according to the Chicago
Tribune, an affidavit bearing the great seal of Peru which reads:
"I hereby certify that to the best of my knowledge, and
in accordance with the assertions of authorities on the history of the
Incas and on Peruvian history in general, whose names will be furnished
upon request, Imma Summack is a descendant of the Inca, Atahualpa, her
mother having been Donna Emilia Atahualpa, direct descendant of the last
Emperor of Peru. Signed: Jose Varela y Aria, Consul General del Peru, May
Whichever of these stories is true there can be no doubt
of this: Yma Sumac has the most amazing singing voice of our time. They
say "that she has a panther and a nightingale in her throat."
"There is no voice like it in the world of music
today," says. Critic Glenn Dillard Gunn of the Washington Times-Herald.
"Her voice has a greater range than any female voice of concert or opera.
It soars into the acoustic stratosphere, or it plumbs the sub-contralto
depth of pitch with equal ease. Such voices happen only once in a generation."
Jarmila Novotna, the Metropolitan Opera Company's
great soprano, called Yma Sumac's voice "about the most exciting I've ever
heard." Ezio Pinza, amazed at her range, warned her to take care of her
voice. One critic said, "'Her Voice is that of birds and of the earthquake."
According to the official story, here is how Yma
Sumac was discovered...
Sixteen thousand feet above the sea, in the village
of Ichocan in the Andes of Peru, the annual festival to the sun god was
in progress. Suddenly a pause came in the impressive ceremonies as the
30,000 Indians fell silent in anticipation of the most exciting event of
the festival, the advent of the taita inty, virgin of the sun god.
On the still mountain air came a voice, a woman's
voice, chanting the traditional Inca Hymn to the Sun, forbidden music which
dates back hundreds of years. As though from another world the thrilling
tones of her voice rang through the air, and as each note struck upon the
ears of the gathered Indians, more and more excitement over came them;
for here, before them, was the miracle their prophets had promised for
centuries--here be fore them was the "voice of the earthquake," incarnate
in the body of the most beautiful woman in all the Andes, directly descended
from Atahualpa, last of the Inca kings!
As the weird and mysterious chanting of the Inca
Hymn came to an end, a roar rose from the crowd. "The Chosen Maiden!" they
were screaming; raised to a high pitch of ecstasy by the voice they had
just heard, an unbelievable voice, an impossible voice, the like of which
exists nowhere else on earth today. "The chosen maiden of the sun! Sing
to us the Accla Taquil."
And sing she did; the chant of the Chosen Maidens.
As the incredible notes fell upon their ears, reaching from a depth as
rich and throaty as a French Horn to notes so pure and high that a flute
would have fallen silent at its failure to compete, the madness in the
Indians grew to an obsession. In that moment, this beautiful woman singing
before them was transformed into the bird who became a woman," and assumed
an almost deified position in the land of the Incas. ' Then she sang the
song of the earthquake, and the Indians stamped on the ground and danced
in time to the beat of its savage rhythm. They whirled into a frenzy to
the words of the Wayra, dance of the winds. Then, when they had
fallen, exhausted, there fell upon their ears the incredibly beautiful
song known as the Xtabay, lure of the unknown love.
The Incas have an ancient legend:
The Xtabay is the most elusive of all
women. You seek her in your flight of desire and think of her as beautiful
as the morning sun touching the highest mountain peak. Her voice calls
to you in every whisper of the wind. The lure of her unknown love becomes
ever stronger, and a virgin who might have consumed your nights with tender
caresses now seems less than the dry leaves of winter. For you follow the
call of the Xtabay...though you walk alone through all your days.
As the sweet echoes of the last note of the Xtabay died
away; Yma Sumac, daughter of the Andes, direct descendant of Atahualpa
and reincarnation of the fabled voice of the unknown love, had captured
the hearts of every one of them.
When news of the miraculous voice of Yma Sumac reached
the cities on the plains below the Andes, her fame began to spread. Stories
of her rare talent and exciting beauty reached the ears of officials of
the Peruvian government, and an investigation was begun. When the rumors
were confirmed, the government decided to bring her down to the coastlands;
but, it is said, the decision almost caused an uprising, and great tact
was necessary to avert actual blood over the threatened loss of their sacred
The official story is that Yma Sumac is only 23.
She was born September 10, 1927, in the Quechuan village of Ichocan. Her
mother is Imma Summack Emilia Atahualpa, a full-blooded Quechua. Her father
is Sixto Chavarri del Castillo, part Spanish and part Indian. She was brought
up as a Quechuan.
Her mother is a direct descendant of Atahualpa.
According to her biographers, Yma was the youngest of six children, and
Inca descent is passed through the youngest child, on the theory that such
benefits from the experience and wisdom of her elders in the family.
If this is true, she is revered as a royal princess and even a spiritual
leader of the Quechuas.
In June, 1941, Yma was brought down from the mountains
and, at age of only 13, was starred at a festival in the Pampa de Amancaes,
a natural amphitheater on the outskirts of the capital city of Lima.
At the Lima concert Yma and her mother met the man
who is now Yma's husband. He is Moises Vivanco, a composer who is himself
half Quechua and half Spanish. Vivanco then was manager of a company of
46 Indian dancers, singers and musicians. He wanted Yma to become a member
of the troupe but Yma's mother refused.
Yma secretly rehearsed with Vivanco's company, however.
She made a radio debut in 1942 and was an overnight sensation. Her mother
objected strongly but the rest of the family, including her father, favored
her career and her mother finally agreed. On June 6, 1942, at the age of
14, she married Vivanco.
He took her on tour with his company to Buenos Aires,
Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, and other places in South and Central America.
She made movies in Argentina and recordings in other Latin American countries.
Her biographers assure us that the late Grace Moore,
who was killed in an airplane crash in Europe, offered to sponsor Yma's
appearance in the United States. She had heard Yma sing in Lima in 1941
and was deeply impressed. The war stopped this plan but the Indian girl
and her husband came anyway, bringing with them Yma's cousin, Cholita Rivero.
She studied for four years here while her husband perfected his arrangements
of native Peruvian music. They were heard by thousands but Yma's fame in
this country really started when Capital Records brought out her album,
"Voice of the Xtabay." Yma won high praise for her Hollywood Bowl performance
August 12, 1950, and her success was assured.
This controversial figure has a magnificent voice
with an unprecedented range of four octaves. Two octaves is the range for
a normal human voice, and some say that Yma really has a five-octave range!
She is a small woman, only five feet, one inch tall,
weighing 110 pounds. Yet from this tiny figure issues a tremendous voice.
The air is thin at 16,000 feet, and Yma's great voice was strengthened
by the tremendous lung capacity that alpine dwellers must develop. She
is full-bosomed, with long black hair which hangs in heavy braids 27 inches
down her back. Her eyes are dark, her gaze slumbrous.
Yma specializes in songs of her native Quechuas.
She sings the Choladas, dance of the moon festival, and the Ataypura,
song of the High Andes. Her Accla Taqui (Chant of the Chosen Maidens)
tells about the decision of the virgins of the sun, who have served as
novices in the sun temple for three years dressed in white with garlands
of gold on their heads. Now is the time when they must make up their minds
whether they wish to remain virgins of the sun for the rest of their lives
or receive husbands.
An exotic twist to the Sumac story can be obtained
by those who own her records and wish to experiment with varying the speed
at which they are played. At 78 revolutions per minute, the listener to
her monos is staggered by the resemblance of her voice to the language
of monkeys. Effects of playing Xtabay at above normal speed are
indescribable--unlike anything you've heard before. But aside from her
novelties and the showmanship of her entourage and aside from the claims
made for her origins which are so fantastic as to seem almost unbelievable
her voice is the most absorbing the modern world has seen. Hers may well
indeed be the reincarnated "voice of the Xtabay."