Iconográfica: An Homage to Yma Sumac, the Peruvian Queen of Exotica

Iconográfica is a column that celebrates divas that not only bring it artistically on a regular basis but exude grrrl power in the process. It’s a pop culture investigation of the context, sound and style of independent and powerful Latinas, with original illustrations and animated gifs by Cristóbal Saez.

Before “world music” became the genre into which all non-western acts were thrown, it used to denote artists that either performed folklore or fused various cultures through music. Perhaps no one embodied this ridiculously broad grouping of music than Peruvian songstress Yma Sumac. She was one of those rare acts that had the whole package: An operatic voice that could range from a bluebird chirping to the croak of a toad, an impressive song catalogue that fused numerous Latin American cultures, and an enigmatic stage presence built on a claim that she was directly descended from Atahualpa, the last ruling Inca emperor.

But like all divas, this wasn’t an overnight success.

The artist known as Yma Sumac was actually born *deep breath* Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo in the Peruvian Andes. Her music career began after she married composer Moises Vivanco in 1942, who would later serve as her manager. The duo moved to NYC where they became the Inka Taqui Trio with Yma’s cousin, Cholita Rivero. The act consisted of Yma belting out Peruvian and Cuban folk songs, while Cholita sang and danced. Even though the trio did well, it wasn’t long before Yma was given her own spotlight when she recorded her first album, The Voice of the Xtabay for Capitol Records. Fusing Andean and Incan folklore with American lounge music, the record showcased her astounding, near five octave range. It featured hymns based on Peruvian legends and ancient Peruvian melodies that had been passed down from generation to generation through word of mouth (or song, as it were.) The record was also filled with obscure instruments: hand drum, gongs, flutes, and more. Shockingly, it sold a million copies. But much like pop stars nowadays, that success wasn’t based on the music alone; it also relied on some serious PR moves. And thats how Yma became Yma Sumac, Princess of the Incas.

In Post-WWII North America, a national obsession had emerged: the exotica movement. Exotica music was mainly popular lounge music tinged with Afro-Caribbean or other Latin American rhythms and melodies. The visual manifestation of this movement built on an invented fantasy of the non-western other – an “ethno-surrealism,” if you will. Capitalizing on this fascination, Yma’s man(ager) came up with a reworking of her image that tapped into the craze: Yma as a beautiful, otherwordly chanteuse whose veins ran with royal Inca blood. She began dressing in lavish gowns and draping herself in indigenous-inspired Peruvian jewelry, oozing a mysterious glamour wherever she went. With this mystique, however, came controversy. She was plagued by rumors regarding her origins and the authenticity of her ancestry. My favorite is probably the rumor that Yma Sumac was in fact Amy Camus (her name backwards), a bored Brooklyn housewife who decided to ditch her laundry to tour the world with her amazing voice. Seems legit, right?

Yma’s success as a recording artist catapulted her to Hollywood, where she starred in two films (and sang three songs) for Paramount Pictures. However, her mainstream success alienated her Peruvian fan base, who began to view her as a sell-out who didn’t remain true enough to her roots. While her first film – Secret of the Incas – was set in Machu Picchu, Yma recorded her part in a closed off studio, and only a small portion of the film was actually filmed at the legendary site, angering her Peruvian fans. These were probably the same people that were angry at her for fusing Incan folk songs with American sounds. Either way, haters gonna hate. You can check out a clip below of Yma performing “Tumpa” in the Secret of the Incas below:

Yma Sumac’s long career started cooling down after a very successful tour in Europe and Japan. And she cooled it off even more when she recorded a rock album (yes, you read that right.) However, her musical legacy transcends the length of her career. The songbird not only was able to spread Incan and Peruvian culture throughout the world, but she was able to push other fragments of Latin culture such as the mambo, marineras and cuecas into popular culture. The enigmatic Incan princess broke the schemes that a Latina had to abide by in the American market and stayed completely fabulous while she was at it. Nowadays, her exotic charm has gotten her a cult following fit for a queen, and Yma is charming a new generation with her impactful soprano voice.