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"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 23, 1946."
    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 Tumpa, 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 singer...
    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 a child
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."

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