Yma Sumac, the Peruvian-born soprano who wowed international audiences in the 1950s with her stunning vocal range and modern take on South American folk music, has died.
Sumac died Saturday at an assisted-living home in Los Angeles after an eight-month bout with colon cancer, Sumac's friend and personal assistant Damon Devine said Monday.
Few biographical details are clear about the reclusive, raven-haired songstress. She was surrounded by rumors about her life and origins, many of them myths of her own making.
Yma Sumac (EE-mah SOO-mak) said she was born in 1927, but Devine said her birth certificate read 1922 and she was 86.
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She claimed to be a descendant of the Inca emperor Atahualpa, and played up her Andean origins.
Dubbed the “Peruvian Songbird” and the “Nightingale of the Andes,” Sumac's soaring, warbling voice – reported to span well over three octaves – was matched by her flamboyant outfits, studded with gold and silver jewelry, designed to make her look like an Incan princess.
Los Angeles Times music critic Don Heckman called her “a living, breathing, Technicolor musical fantasy – a kaleidoscopic illusion of MGM exotica come to life in an era of practicality.”
Her first album for Capitol, “Voice of the Xtabay” in 1950, sold half a million copies and launched a decade of fame that included memorable performances at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl in an era when American audiences had a hunger for all things “exotic.”
Her American fame would largely fade in the 1960s. She made a rock album called “Miracles” in 1971, reissued in 1998 as “Yma Rocks!”
Sumac earned a cult following among alternative and lounge music fans in the 1990s, and her music appeared on the soundtracks of many movies, including “The Big Lebowski.”