Discover Yma Sumac



By Rachel Ramirez

Singer Yma Sumac was born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo on September 13, 1922 in Ichocan, Cajamara, Peru.  Her date of birth is approximate, since some biographies have listed the date as September 10 and the years between 1921-1929.  Sumac was a soprano with a four-five octave range and could reach from baritone to ordinary soprano.  Her popularity as a singer hit its peak in the 1950’s with the introduction of a genre of music called exotica, which was meant to replicate sounds of islands and places such as the Orient or the South Seas that people imagined would be like. 

Sumac’s distinct stage name is said to have been derived from her mother’s name of Ima Shumaq, a Quechua phrase meaning “how beautiful”. In the 1940’s Sumac had started with the spelling of her new stage name as Imma Sumack and made her first radio appearance in 1942.  That same year, she married a composer and bandleader named Moises Vivanco, and in 1942, Sumac recorded 18 Peruvian folk songs with his musical group, Compania Peruana de Arte.  In 1946, Sumac and her husband moved to New York City and, along with her cousin, created a group called Inka Taky Trio, which performed in the lounge music circuit.  After she was signed by Capitol Records in 1950, she changed the spelling of her name to Yma Sumac and released her first album called “Voice of Xtabay” (1950).

Musically, the 1950’s was all about the discovery and popularity of rock and roll, but exotica and lounge music also had its fanbase, and Sumac’s style of Incan and South American folk songs with a Hollywood flair became a hit with American audiences.  Her song “Chuncho (The Forest Creatures)” (1953) is one example of the the highs and lows her voice could climb, with a haunting “double voice” appearing in the background.  She appeared in a Broadway play titled “Flahooley” (1954) and in the films “Secret of the Incas” (1954) and “Omar Khayyam” (1957).  In 1954, a classical composer named Virgil Thompson described in detail about Sumac’s voice as being “…very low and warm, very high and birdlike…and her four octave range is in no way inhuman or outlandish in sound.”, and Sumac became a U.S. citizen in July 1955.  However, she and her husband divorced in 1957, remarried that same year, but divorced for final in 1965.  From 1961 to 1966 she toured Europe, Russia, Asia and Latin America with the Inka Taky Trio, but the rest of the 1960’s were dotted with occasional on-stage performances.  She returned to live in Peru in 1971, but her career was revived in the 1980’s, appearing on the David Letterman show in 1987.  With the re-birth of lounge music in the 1990’s, a new generation discovered Sumac’s songs such as “Ataypura”, which was featured in the film “The Big Lebowski”.  Her song “Bo Mambo” appeared in a Kahlua liquor commercial and was sampled by the Black Eyed Peas for their song “Hands Up” (2004).  “Gopher Mambo” was featured in an act from a Cirque du Soliel show titled “Quidam”, and the song appeared in the films “Dead Husbands”, “Ordinary Decent Criminals” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” 

In May 2006, Sumac was awarded both the Orden del Sol by Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo and the Jorge Basadare Medal by the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos.  Sumac died in Los Angeles on November 1, 2008 at the age of 86, after being diagnosed with colon cancer only 9 months prior.  Instead of being buried in her home of Peru, she is buried at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and is placed in the “Sanctuary of Memories” area.

One of the more colorful stories about Yma Sumac is that she is actually a Brooklyn housewife named Amy Camus, but the Peruvian government confirmed her birth in Peru as authentic.  Also, Sumac claimed to have been descended from the last Incan emperor named Atahualpa.

 Songs to discover:

  • “Gopher Mambo”
  • “Chuncho (The Forest Creatures)”
  • “El Condor Pasa”
  • “Bo Mambo”
  • “La Pampa y La Puna”

Rachel Ramirez has written for Modern Latina since 2006, in addition to  Many of her articles reflect her interest and specialty in skin, beauty, and nutrition.  Rachel received her Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition from San Jose State University and currently is a skincare expert with Sephora.