Sunday, November 09, 2008

Amy Camus Didn't Die. Yma Sumac did.

Yma Sumac (September 13, 1922-November 1, 2008) was sort of Charo crossed with Margaret Dumont and Marni Nixon. Like Nixon, she truly did have a remarkable voice, but like Charo and Dumont, at times there was a dash of self-parody or self-delusion in there, but like any pro, you don't argue with what you're being paid to do.
She was born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo, and sang as Imma Sumack (the name loosely translated as "How Beautiful") in her native Peru. She recorded her first tracks in Peru in 1943, and came to America three years later. America was friendly to all sorts of ethnic folk acts, rhumba bands, guys banging a drum and shouting "Babalu" or women wearing fruit on their heads and flirting with Groucho Marx. Our Peruvian princess, with husband and kid, was more than willing to play the game, and changed her name to Yma Sumac. (Which led some wiseguys to reverse it, and claim she was phony Amy Camus from Brooklyn!). She signed with Capitol in 1950 and melded South American folk songs to the soundtrack-music stylings that made up a lot of that era's middle-of-the-road easy listening albums.
She found herself part of a new wave of ethnic-soundtrack stuff, which would include Les Baxter's instrumentals, way too many Hawaiian and Tiki albums, and the hit "Quiet Village" (with jungle sound effects) from Martin Denny. Just as Carmen Miranda knew how to wear bananas, Yma knew how to milk her cash-goat...turning from plain folk singer to a specialist in ultra-strange exotica. She appeared in two films, "Secret of the Incas" (1954) and "Omar Khayyam" (1957) but when jungle novelty wore off, her albums sadly found their way to the cut-out bins along with Baxter and Denny.
Yma would've easily qualified as a forgotten illfolks oddity except the same gays that found Carmen Miranda, found Yma, and they turned her into a gay cult icon. Which was fine with Yma, as long as it meant more money, concerts, and a campy comeback album called "Miracles." Another decade passed, and Sumac was further elevated by vinyl geeks. These were nerds, backpacks strapped to their thrift shop shirts, mistaking bad plaid as retro fashion, and their uncle's forgotten failed hipster albums as the ultimate in cool. As girls rarely go into record stores and don't think backpacks are a fashion accessory, Yma's new-found devotees soothed their lonely, sexless hours by staring at her formidable cover art and convincing themselves that liking her 4 octave range and actually listening to this stuff more than once every Halloween, marked them as...kewl. These guys even had their own terms ("outsider" music or "lounge") so they could grunt to themselves, "I'm not like everybody else," small solace for constant masturbation and record store haunting.
Yma, like Ed Wood Jr., deserves a bit better than to be a cult item for assholes. But by how much? A three-song tribute gives you an idea of whether you want to buy or cadge free downloads and hear more.
These three samples of Yma are from three distinct stages of her career.
MONOS (translation: MONKEYS) is typical of her early Latin novelties.
XTABAY is her famous half-sung half-vocalise exercise in jungle drama. Quite a few numbers like this are as intoxicating as a pina colada...with an extra splash of tequila (and don't forget the worm).
MEDICINE MAN comes from her foolishly titled "Miracles." This album also has her take on "El Condor Pasa" and while it's nice that she ignores Paul Simon's lyrics, her menopausal cooing sounds like a toucan on crack. Not that this is a bad thing. It's well worth hearing, but "Medicine Man" is even more bizarre, with Yma whooping it up over multi-octaves. Yes, it proved she had a wider range than the other gay fave of the day Bette Midler. To which, most any sane person would ask, "So what?"
Yma Sumac was an amusing novelty singer in her day, with some numbers giving off an air of both inspiration and perspiration, but these days her memory is mostly evoked by gays who should simply buy opera records or have the honesty to dress up in drag while listening to Carmen Miranda. Additionally, there's the lounge and exotica crowd who still can't get over the fact that Martin Denny threw some bird noises into a middle-of-the-road bit of soundtrack music...and have made a cult out of anything that came from any place that grows guavas.
At her best, Sumac might be described in the same manner James Russell Lowell wrote of his contemporary, Edgar A. Poe: "Three-fifths...genius and two-fifths sheer fudge."
The percentage may be different with Yma, but it would be a good idea, if you're going to listen, to have a fifth handy, and take a few shots before you start.




Damon Devine said...

Never, on the ENTIRE Internet have I read such a BULLSHIT story on Yma Sumac. The writer knows NOTHING about Yma Sumac and is wrong on every count. Completely inaccurate. Do some real research before you talk your stupid shit.

Anonymous said...

Oops, looks like Gay Damon is throwing a hissy fit!

Hey Ill, I didn't see anything factual that was wrong, and your critiques and wit are always fun to read.

Fanboy trannies like Damon only want to hear good things about their diva icons. Yma's dead? Good!