Yma Sumac: The Quintessence (él Records)

Yma Sumac The Quintessence

Yma Sumac was one of the most unique personalities to come from the lounge music era of the 1950.  A Peruvian-born singer, she took it upon herself to create an outlandish persona to match her otherworldly vocal range. Thus, she declared herself to be a twenty-thousand year old Incan princess, as well as a descendent of the last Incan emperor. Of course, with a vocal range as amazing as hers—she could plummet the depths of bass and then some of the highest notes you’ll ever hear, reaching over six octaves—the silly backstories only added to the appeal. Bizarrely, her singing was so alien to the listening public that some actually believed she was a terriblesinger.  She most certainly wasn’t, as demonstrated by él Records’ definitive new box set, Yma Sumac: The Quintessence, which compiles her recorded output and the entirety of her releases for Capitol Records.

Though she began recording in the 1940s, her star began to shine after Les Baxter discovered her. He featured her as a vocalist, which lead to a recording contract with Capitol. Her debut album, Voice Of The Xtabay, sounded like nothing heard before. Opening track “Virgin Of The Sun God” lets the listener know they were charting into unknown waters; Sumac’s vocal range goes so high, she almost sounds like a human Theremin. The other seven album tracks also sounded like traditional Incan music.Yet these songs weren’t traditional at all; they were written by Sumac’s then-husband, Moisés Vivanco, who helped her create a new world. This landscape was occasionally dreamy (“High Andes!,” “Chant Of The Chosen Maidens”) and often quite dramatic (“Monkeys,” “Dance Of The Winds,” “Earthquake!”). “Xtabay” is the real highlight; it’s a blend of opera and South American rhythms that would help define the rest of her career.

Voice Of The Xtabay might have been a strange curiosity, but it made Yma Sumac famous. It allowed her to tour the world, to play in some of the planet’s most prestigious music halls. It brought her television appearances and critical acclaim, which she parlayed over the decade. Her albums carried on the Voice Of The Xtabay’s unique style, with each album working in more contemporary lounge music fare, especially on 1954’s fine Mambo!

The end of the decade also brought an end to her contract with Capitol. But she left  on a high note; Fuego Del Ande offers a straightforward collection of exotic South American tropical music, blending mambo, samba, and salsa together in a delicious buffet of sounds. Gone are the gimmicks of her Incan princess persona; she’s wearing modern clothing and looking quite happy with her parrot friend. The music’s superb, too; “The Worker’s Song,” “My Pigeon,” and “The Hot Rooster” offer some superb dance grooves, while “Crying Heart” is a lovely ballad. The final song, “I Won’t Forget You” gives the set a wonderful send-off with a melancholic but upbeat number.

Sadly, it was somewhat prophetic, as the end of her Capitol deal also meant the de facto end of her recording career. She would release but two more albums, a live album in 1961, with her final studio recording, Miracles, appearing in 1972. But the lack of new material did not mean an end to her career, though; she continued to be a popular international draw, occasionally causing trouble with her fiery personality. The lounge music craze of the early nineties introduced her to a new generation. Though she quietly passed away in 2008 at the age of 86, a life well lived. Yma Sumac: The Quintessence serves this unique personality quite well, and is an essential release.

Purchase Yma Sumac The Quintessence: Amazon / él Records

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