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Celebrating the legacy of Peruvian singer Yma Sumac

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now a voice for the ages - whichever age that was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MALAMBO NO. 1")

YMA SUMAC: What they do in Peru... (Singing in non-English language).

SIMON: That's the late Yma Sumac, the Peruvian singer with a singular and stunning sound. She would have turned 100 years old this month, either on September 10 or September 13 - some of the details of her life are a little fudgy. She had an enormous vocal range - at least four octaves, maybe even five. That's about twice as large as any ordinary singer. Let's listen to "Chuncho," where her voice growls...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHUNCHO")

SUMAC: (Vocalizing).

SIMON: ...Soars...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHUNCHO")

SUMAC: (Vocalizing).

SIMON: ...And challenges description.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHUNCHO")

SUMAC: (Vocalizing).

SIMON: Yma Sumac was born in the Andes, and several towns claimed to be her birthplace. She claimed to be a descendant of the last Incan emperor. She became a folk singer, drawing on what were believed to be Incan traditions. And then, as many ambitious entertainers do, she decided to move to Hollywood.

CAROLINA MIRANDA: Nobody really had much use for Andean folk music in 19 - late 1940s Los Angeles. And so Capitol Records took all of these stories from Andean Indigenous history, and basically Hollywooded (ph) them and her right up.

SIMON: That's Carolina Miranda, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a lifelong fan of Yma Sumac. And here's an example of how Capitol Records gave the singer the Hollywood treatment. On the cover of her first album, Yma Sumac was posed before a smoking volcano, flanked by images of pre-Columbian sculptures. She wore gold jewelry, big bracelets, an elaborate headpiece and a large necklace. That album sold half a million copies. That's Bing Crosby territory. But her music was described as exotica.

MIRANDA: If you think of what the soundtrack to some jungle epic or a tiki bar would be, that was exotica. It was a stew of international sounds - Asian gongs, pan flutes, drums, these kind of dramatic and florid vocal stylings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAITA INTY (VIRGIN OF THE SUN GOD)")

SUMAC: (Singing in non-English language).

SIMON: Yma Sumac also appeared in movies - with Charlton Heston in the 1954 adventure movie "Secret Of The Incas." While she may have been a star in the U.S., that was not the case in her native Peru - at least not at first.

MIRANDA: Peruvians for a long time, you know, had an arm's-length relationship with her. They saw her almost as corrupting the culture. And for a long time, she did not go to Peru. She did not perform there.

SIMON: Yma Sumac did perform in plenty of other places across the U.S. and Europe. She even had a 40-city tour of the Soviet Union. Carolina Miranda says her music endured with a fan base who cherished her campiness.

MIRANDA: There was something, like, very fabulous and larger than life about her, and she never let that go. Like, she was never the kind of performer who later in life kind of had a sense of humor about herself. She was Yma Sumac.

SIMON: And her legend continues 100 years after her birth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WIMOWEH")

SUMAC: (Singing) Wimoweh... (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Danny Hensel