Artist picture of Yma Súmac

Yma Súmac

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Known for her impressive four-octave vocal range and her quirky costumes, Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo (born on September 13, 1922), aka Yma Sumac, was a Peruvian soprano and a lead exponent of lounge and exotica music during her heyday in the 50s. The youngest of six children, she was born and raised in Ichocán, an indigenous village in Northern Peru. Sumac was also rumored to be an Incan princess whose ancestry traced all the way back to last Incan Emperor Atahualpa, a claim that the Peruvian government supported in 1946. As a child, Sumac started singing by trying to mimic the birds’ sounds and soon started performing at regional festivals, dazzling everyone with her talent. By the time she was a teenager, her gift was undeniable and her family decided to move to Lima so Sumac could pursue a career in music. There, she joined Compañía Peruana de Arte, a troupe of dancers, singers, and musicians, and met soon-to-be husband and musical partner Moisés Vivanco in 1942. Her first recordings date back to 1944, when she travelled to Buenos Aires to record a collection of Peruvian folk songs for the label Odeón. In 1946, Sumac and Vivanco moved to New York City and formed the Inka Taky Trio alongside Cholita Rivero, the singer’s cousin, but failed to impress audiences in The Big Apple. After a performance at the South American Music Festival in Carnegie Hall in 1949, Sumac was discovered by Les Baxter, who helped her secure a record deal with Capitol Records. Voice of the Xtabay (1950), her studio debut, shot the singer to stardom and prompted live shows at legendary venues like Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. A subsequent African and European tour ensued, where she got to perform for the Queen at the Royal Festival Hall. 1951 marked Sumac’s debut on Broadway with the musical Flahooley, which was followed by the release of a string of cult lounge albums such as Mambo! (1954), Legend of the Jivaro (1957), and Fuego del Ande (1959). Her popularity in the US started to decline towards the end of the decade, and she spent most of the 60s touring the Asía, Europe, Latin America, and the Soviet Union, where she became hugely influential. She returned in 1971 with a rock album entitled Miracles and performed sporadically during the 80s and 90s, making an appearance at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 1997. Almost two years after receiving the Orden del Sol award by Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo in 2006, Sumac died on November 1, 2008 after succumbing to colon cancer.