It looks like the setting for a human sacrifice. An Inca icon stands at each end of the stage. An image of Peru’s Machu Picchu is projected on a backdrop. To the boom-boom beat of conga drums, a woman stretches her five inch, fake fingernails into the air and bursts into sound—a weird mixture of chirps, wails, moans, scat noises and coos. Singing in a hybrid dialect of no known derivation, Yma Sumac is performing her come-back cabaret act in New York.
“The forest creatures taught me how to sing,” she says, explaining her approach.
A cult favorite some 35 years ago, Yma was one of the most unlikely of stars, an exotic curiosity. People came to hear her span a superhuman five octaves and to watch her prowl around the stage striking exaggerated poses. Yma was a performance artist before anyone even heard of the phrase. Hollywood cast her in Secret of the Incas and Omar Khayyam, in which she felled a temple when she sang to it. Now the Peruvian hoot is back, and a coterie curious to see if she can still make those sounds has bought out her three-week stint at the Ballroom in New York. “She has a wild, grandiose dimension,” says French designer Thierry Mugler, just one of the fans. “I love her savage side, the screams, the jungle sounds, the onomatopoeia.” Naturally, the camp claque adores her. “She was my idol growing up,” says Holly Woodlawn, a female impersonator in several Warhol movies. “She made me want to become an Egyptologist.” David Letterman has booked her.
Myth and hype have always accompanied Yma Sumac (pronounced eee maw, sue mack). She was billed as “The Last of the Inca Princesses” and her press agents swore she was the direct descendant of an Inca emperor. Others said she was a publicity fraud, that Yma Sumac was Amy Camus spelled backward and that she came from Brooklyn. As she sits in the Ballroom dining room, eating tapas and drinking a Peruvian cocktail called pisco sour, she smiles at the tales told about her. Gone is the hauteur. She’s sweet and grandmotherly as she speaks in a heavy Latin accent. “Once I saw that man who made up the story about my name and I went to scold him but he ran away. Of course I am Yma. But Yma is not that arrogant woman onstage. Yma is very simple, very human.” She gives no date of birth (she’s probably in her late 50s) and is intent on keeping the legends alive. “At night in my bedroom I hear the whoo-whoo of the little birds and I hear the dogs barking very sad,” she says. “That’s what I put in my records. I don’t bark bow-wow, but I bark whoo, and I sing like the birdies.”
Yma claims she started making those sounds at 9, and when her wealthy farming family sent her at 15 to a convent in Lima, she worked on her singing. She married Peruvian composer Moises Vivanco and came to the U.S., scoring a big success with a Hollywood Bowl concert in 1952. In the mid ’50s she was pulling in $25,000 a week in Las Vegas. Khrushchev invited her to Russia in 1962, and she was such a hit she stayed for six months. “Everyone loved Yma,” she says.
Then they started to forget her. Yma’s campy Peruvian act was out of sync with the protest-conscious ’60s. Her marriage fell apart when she found her husband dallying with other women. “All men is cuckoo,” says Yma. “They like all the girls. No matter what country, man is a man.” She returned to the Andes to raise her son, now in college in Madrid, and, she says dramatically, “to be reborn.”
Miraculously, Yma Sumac has been. Capitol Records is re-releasing her albums, some on CDs. Her new agent, Alan Eichler, has big plans. “Yma belongs in Vegas,” he proclaims. “She needs volcanos and earthquakes and shrunken heads. We want natives carrying her in on their shoulders.” A new generation is discovering her. Lily Tomlin came to see her three times in L.A. and Bill Murray had her autograph his album. But though her Peruvian yodeling now sounds like mainstream New Wave, Yma remains a mysterious relic from another world. “All the big stars have come to see Yma,” she says proudly. “Virginia Mayo, Aldo Ray.”
And when told that Cyndi Lauper adores her music, she shrugs and asks, “Who’s he?”