WHY A PRINCESS OF THE INCAS

MIGHT BE AN ICON FOR GERMAN GAYS

MUSINGS ON
YMA SUMAC
(1922 - 2008)


 





 
 
Every gay man adores at least one diva. Of course, that isn't a fact.

However, should the diva ever take a look around in order to find out what her audience is like, then she would find that it consists of a much higher percentage of gays than the audience of average musical artists. Why might that be? One possible explanation: Divas are of slightly odd apparition, both in behaviour as well as in their looks. Something doesn't seem quite right about them. Occasionally, it makes you laugh. It's just like, you know, similar to the phenomenon when you feel a little bit beside yourself.

Because of its political implications, I hesitate to use the word "queer" but it is an expression explaining my personal condition in regard to the post-postmodern age (an age which I simply describe as hyperinformatism).

Another explanation why gays might love all those divas is - and I just can't stand this simplification anymore - that they are "camp". This is an expression which is extremely difficult to translate into German, by the way. These days, the German gays are also familiar with the term "camp" and are using it like so many anglicisms, although I'm wondering whether they are aware of all the subtleties and nuances involved. Well, I mean I hope that the word "camp" implies some subtleties and nuances.  I even read the word in an article by Diedrich Diederichsen, one of the leading German experts on pop culture theory. Susan Sontag wrote a well-known essay regarding the subject, brilliant as usual. But from her point and time of view, she described several items as "camp" which definitely aren't camp anymore.

The question is not necessarily whether the gay condition should be summarized at all (a homosexual subcultural identity has sprung into existence only during the last 200 years. Before that, there were "homosexual" acts but those were simply a form of behaviour). If the gay condition could be summarized, it would definitely not be "camp". And it would not be that really all gays are into Barbra Streisand.

Not yet.
 
 
*
However, there was - or is - a form of iconism which definitely is of specifically gay nature. German writer and singer Max Goldt is probably unknown to most people from abroad. His humour doesn't work when you try to translate his texts into other languages. Still, he has once described homosexuality as "the act of worshipping of dumb old women" (roughly translated). Since he is gay, the heterosexual reader should take it for granted that he knows what he's talking about. Meanwhile however, he has become an object of gay idolisation himself which makes his comment even more absurd (thankfully).

Well let's see - who's been assigned to our away team so far? There are Ethel Merman, Madonna, Cher, Barbra Streisand, Julie Andrews, Shirley Bassey, Eartha Kitt, Dionne Warwick, Liza Minelli, her mother Judy Garland, Donna Summer, Dolly Parton, Miss Piggy, the Golden Girls, Lucille Ball, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, The Carpenters, Marlene Dietrich, Annie Lennox, Gladys Knight (with pips), Gloria Gaynor (she'll survive), Diana Ross, Linda Ronstadt, Nancy Sinatra, Patti Labelle, Doris Day, Joan Collins (she sang "Imagine"), Freddie Mercury (yes, there are a few good men), Elton John, the Pet Shop Boys and Grace Jones. Funny enough though, Nico doesn't count, as well as Suzanne Vega or Tina Turner. However, Kate Bush counts. Don't ask me. And everyone singing a Bacharach tune counts as well, of course. And Bowie doesn't count as well. The list of my English translation does not include global celebrities unknown to America, though I have added several classics unknown to Germans.

Still, so far, I went on and on listing regular gay standards of adoration.

There is something more to it than this. In contrast to this gay mainstream, many gays emphasizing on their individuality set themselves apart from the homosexual cliché. So they get into the so-called hardcore iconism.

Requiring a darker and more colourful shade to their personality and taste, these gays focus on more interesting or special or unknown subjects which should not be forgotten (at least, from their point of view). It's almost like "This is my reverance and nobody elses!" - and if you meet somebody else with the same reverance then it's a welcome friend, a rare kindred spirit. With him or her, you can exchange your valuable insights on this serious matter - it's either Meredith Monk or Juliette Greco or Marianne Faithfull, Laurie Anderson, Diamanda Galas, the Einstürzende Neubauten, Caetano Villoso or my latest serious idol - Lila Downs.

Not all of these hardcore idols are a totally serious matter. An unintentional comical twist about some of those hardcore icons has its own specific charm. One day, I might address the matter of Luixy Toledo or Mary Schneider or The Shaggs - but not today ...

 
*
There is a Peruvian singer who has been an important hardcore icon of mine. Maybe. Or maybe, there is a woman from Brooklyn who has been that hardcore icon.

I have been in serious doubt of reality ever since I was thirteen years old - when the Aliens didn't come to abduct me. I had wished for it, at the time. But the Aliens only abducted American children and never bothered with Germany. In the last decades, it has become evident that the development of culture and history is culminating in a puddle of absurdities. It might even be that I'm only imagining all this.
 
It had all started on 26th of October 1990. On that day, I returned from my vacation in San Francisco and stopped for a short visit at my neighbor's place. He was in the middle of going crazy over a record which he had bought a few days before.

The music I heard was an amazing experience. I was not into mambo music but these sounds got me into their groove. Furthermore, the singer was totally unbelievable. She reminded me a bit of Nina Hagen (although it is actually just the other way around - Nina Hagen occasionally sounds like her), but she had very operatic elements as well and such an astonishing vocal range!

I was told by my neighbors that she was a real Inca princess who had started singing when she was thirteen. In the fifties, she had sung in crowded concert halls and major dance halls - but nowadays, nobody knew her anymore. That's what I was told - plus her name: YMA SUMAC.
 

That specific longplayer had the title "MAMBO". With some vaguely pleasant sensations but also with some inner distance, I listened in and watched the wild dances of my neighbors and my roommates, finally I felt the urge to get down to it. I think I must have thought "oh well". After all, it had only been a few months since my actual Coming Out.

One month later, I was rather convinced that I was one of the biggest fans of hers in the entire world (I was also thinking "How good it is that almost no one knows about her" ... ). But during my visit to the "Warm Winter `90"  when gay youth groups from all over Germany met in Berlin, I was informed by a sweet Peruvian boy living in Heidelberg called Ariel who was familiar with her that she still lives in Peru and occasionally performs at smaller private events.
 

After this, an escalation of situations unfolded:

On an old record by the German new wave band "Palais Schaumburg" from the year 1983, I surprisingly discovered two little samples from the "MAMBO" LP. While in Berlin again in Summer 1991, I mentioned the artist to a student of music who said "I know of her". Before realizing what he had said, I had almost completed explaining who she was. The music student said "I know of her. She's this American coloratura singer called Amy Camus from Brooklyn who just turned the letters of her name around and started to sing in the Peruvian language because she was so bad at the Opera".

This was my first encounter with the Amy Camus rumour - in a somewhat distorted and grotesque version than the original malinformation. An indefinite mass of incredible accounts began to follow during the next weeks and months:

It seems that, during the 50's, her voice was praised to the highest - being an absolute miracle. The scale of her register extended to an all out of four and half octaves. According to later remarks by herself, it was even five octaves. And even in 1991, as the Peruvian Inca Icon was supposedly approaching an age of 70 or so, she could range between three octaves (which is much anyway for any singer). In Hollywood, she recorded many mysterious folklore records of different qualities: some of it was obscure and dark anthropological music like the fifth album she recorded for Capitol Records, the brilliant yet weird "JIVARO" album. Other recordings have the ethnological authenticity of a Tarzan movie soundtrack, like "LEGEND OF THE SUN VIRGIN" or "VOICE OF XTABAY" (her first two albums for Capital Records). But her voice flew like a Condor over the sort of classical orchestrations by the imperturbably corny yet smashingly brilliant arranger and composer Les Baxter (though the composer of the music was mostly Moises Vivanco, Miss Sumacs husband). Her repertoire included even rock music as on "MIRACLES", her last real longplayer recorded in 1971, but she is most famous for her "MAMBO" album of 1955 when she was as brilliant as never before and never again. Those mambos are probably the perfect antidote against all those samba bores from South America that you probably heard a thousand times (I think I read this last sentence somewhere else but I forgot where - but then again, I think, it was that marvellous SPEX article by Reinhard Krause).
 
*

The information came bit by bit (back in 1991, reliable or unreliable sources as the Internet were unknown):

In the 50's and in the 60's, she was a world-famous star, giving concerts even in Moscow, but it seemed now that her fame had dissolved. She seemed to have disappeared, no longer appearing in public, no longer giving concerts. Suddenly and strange enough, there was a German documentary film on TV about her. Amazed, me and my neighbors and roommates tuned in and were even more stunned by the almost total absence of Yma Sumac from this film about her (except for some short old footage and many pictures and many interviews with some people who once had something to do with her). The film wanders in the dark, musing about Yma Sumac who refused to appear in it (also preventing interviews with her son and her divorced husband, her congenial partner and composer Moises Vivanco). It seemed at that time that Yma Sumac tried to keep the utmost control over any detail concerning her legendary life. Everybody spreading details, whether false or accurate, had to expect being sued by her.

When her first Capitol Records album appeared, this record company spread the tale that she was indeed a real Inca princess from a small village in the Andes - an effort of exotica which was designed to increase sales figures.

Another detail that this barely significant film let me know about was the above-mentioned fact that, these days, a large portion of her fandom consists of Gays - I felt deeply touched for this compliment. Aside from that, the film could not provide clarity or proof who or what Yma Sumac really is. Inca princess or Brooklyn girl, she has her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (as does Godzilla) . But it seemed that she was concerned her myth could be deconstructed and the lie of a lifetime could be unveiled - maybe there was no Yma Sumac after all.

Two weeks later, my doubt of coherence of this world was confirmed. My neighbor gave me a telephone call from Berlin in the middle of going crazy over the following information. On 28th of October 1991 - almost precisely one year after my first encounter with her music - Yma Sumac would give a concert in the "Theater des Westens" (Theatre of the West) in Berlin, this being her only concert in Germany during her present world tour.

 
*

Berlin was the first station of her world tour. Only she herself undertook that journey, along with two costumes and three Inca statuettes. Still, she appeared on the stage with six German musicians with whom she had rehearsed only for a short time, and they would have looked and felt better in a jazz hall (though heading this band was the famous piano player Kai Rautenberg who had also once accompanied Hildegarde Neff or Brigitte Mira, another German icon )... Three fourths of the audience consisted of the so-called "men with earrings" or the "little boys" as Yma likes to call her present-day main group of fans. This would be a great moment of general celebration far away from my HARDCORE ICONISM. Apparently, she was on the verge of an enormous comeback.

This concert in the "Theater des Westens" turned out to be one of the most iconistic events of this decade as the following happened: An emotion stirred me deeply, I felt touched and moved in a cosmic sense - I saw  her (and it was different at that moment already from your usual soft core iconism). She was alive, she was a living person who really sang like on those records. It was no longer an unbelievable dream. It was three octaves, definitely, at that night. Occasionally, there was the effort of the fledging voice to reach four and a half, not entirely successful ...

After an instrumental version of the song  "EARTH QUAKE", she, visiting Germany again after thirty years, entered the stage in a blue-golden costume and sang "ATAYPURA", one of her most legendary songs from her very first Capitol Records album "THE VOICE OF XTABAY". It was this moment that I felt touched. The audience was terribly excited and very grateful, with everybody cheering jubilantly. After the first song, with wonderful self-irony, she remarked that she was happy to be back in Germany again after 2000 years. A few unfamiliar songs (new compositions by herself?) and "MOSCOW NIGHTS" followed. Then came the song "MONTANA", a Peruvian lullaby song which is also famous to her fans, and the audience applauded wildly. Everbody was overwhelmed. The next song "LA MOLINA" was an even bigger success. The audience did not want to let her go to the intermission, she had to give an encore (a repetition of "LA MOLINA") even before the second part of the show .
 

The second part of the concert began with several confusions. Firstly, the musicians played an instrumental version of the "MALAMBO N° 1" and did not do too well. Secondly, Yma Sumac arrived on the stage too late for the next piece "SURAY SURITA", as if she had missed her entry. It was the beginning of the end ...

In terms of her voice, she was much more determined and giving during this second part of the concert. She did a lot with her deep "Baoo-aoo-aooa-ooa-ah-ah" roll, still trying for the fourth octave. She knew that she was beyond her highest times, but she was still trying to get as high as possible. For the first time in my life, I felt struck by the real sensation of tragedy. Aside from that, she was just as good as on her old records, according to the statement of an elderly gentleman in the lobby whom we had met during the intermission, a fan of hers ever since her great days. The sensation of time intersections was amazing to me and my neighbors and roommates who were all here with me at this concert. We were all there together.

In the second part, the beautiful operatic aria "TU'CA NUN CHIAGNE!" and the smashing tune "CELEBRATE LIFE" were totally convincing. During the latter, she had to stop at the beginning to show the orchestra how they should do the rhythm (this was unprofessional behaviour, but more on her part than on the part of the musicians). It was all becoming rather strange ...

The end came suddenly with many people booing. So far, they had been patient. Yma told the audience that she wanted to sing some songs of the "MAMBO" record, but either she could not get started or the musicians had not made themselves familiar enough with these tunes. And all that Jazz. She broke off the concert unexpectedly although, in her heart, she wanted to continue.

She told us about the terrible car accident during which she had broken her arms and leg. That it was still painful. And that the terrible weather in Germany had affected her voice. And that this was the reason why she and the musicians had not had enough time to rehearse. That the musicians had already left. It all sounded as much as South America as "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez which continuously presents the reader with these kinds of stories. She promised to repeat her concert on Monday (or rather to carry it out in actuality), and that then, everything would be perfect. Afterwards, the director of the "Theater des Westens" decided to cancel this concert. His explanation was he wanted to prevent an almost pre-programmed scandal.

It was fitting for the legend, though. Very much appropriate for the myth of Yma Sumac. Another secret about which one could wonder. She remained relevant. Right after the show, I saw her leaving at the backdoor exit, entering a Mercedes. While she left, she was surrounded by her most loyal fans and friends, some of them were my neighbors and my roommates, everybody was trying to give her positive vibrations. She looked very intimidated and very exhausted.  At that moment, I was not far away from her, and I saw her as a real person at last.

*

After the concert, she remained in Germany and appeared in two television programs. During the dubious "Schmidt Show" (not to be confused with the "Harald Schmidt Show" but a rather illustrous "gay" TV program from Hamburgs famous Schmidt theatre), she broke off her performance - a stunning sight once again for the television viewer. This time, she was in anger, because somebody in the audience had dared to laugh about her. The other TV program "Boulevard bei Bio" went without any catastrophies. It was during this interview that she told German talkmaster Alfred Biolek (another gay celebrity in the community) her voice ranges through five octaves. Afterwards, she sang "MONTANA", a very slow, accentuated and operatic performance, still touching.
 
These events did not discourage her to continue. The legend would not end this way. The star of one of the most obscurest divas ever was not about to go down. She recorded a single called "MAMBO CONFUSION" though distribution of that record was prohibited and the pressed CDs went back to the record company immediately after the release. The unusual reason for this: Miss Sumac had used instrumentations and vocal samplings from her old song "CHICKEN TALK" but she did not have and could not obtain the rights for the song (but at least, I was able to buy the "brandnew Yma Sumac record" - a thrill that so many other people have experienced for years and decades before, a thrill that was surely often followed by bewilderment caused by the actual experience of listening). A longplayer album called "MAMBO CONFUSION" was also available in shops for a short time, or so it is said. Supposedly, there was no new material on it except for the disco song just mentioned. It seems to be a miracle that there are actual people who own this CD single, an extremely rare gem. Maybe even I am just an illusion. But if so, could anybody still sue me?

*

But after this smaller debacle, Yma Sumac suddenly and unexpectedly came back for me on the 22nd of May 1992 into the concert hall "Meistersingerhalle" in Nuremberg. One of her final concerts in Germany.

On this evening, she sang for an audience of 120 people in the smaller second hall of this location. Despite another heavy cold which was very real (every listener had to notice), she was almost able to reach the vocal height of former times. Other listeners around me complained between songs  that ... "that she was sleep-drugged, she was tremolating , her voice was very heavy and that she had forgotten some lyrics and that she was croaking false notes ..."

I could not continue to listen to these slanderous and calumnious voices ... They were too painful. On the stage, I saw a human being, a real woman, and in her voice, the sensitive listeners in the audience sensed the echo of the experience and of the emotion of a whole lifetime. One could feel a whole life here within this voice, and it seemed only natural that she sounded different than in former times. Yma had more depth, more authenticity than ever. To counter here with a demand for perfection is a misguided judgement - no, this was the time when absolute HARDCORE ICONISM was in demand. All in all, the ending went better than in Berlin.
 

According to rumour however, her managers tried to make a lot of money with this tour. It is said that she had not been very rich, actually she may have even been rather poor, and she must have dreamed of feeling the fame and glamour of lost times around herself again. That is probably why she had signed the contract for this concert tour to return to glory and success. But this contract resulted in the fact that the managers received a main portion of the proceeds.

Since this tour was actually disastrous, the managers would deal with her in a different manner, not paying anymore for hotel rooms or a return flight. Even if she had wanted to, she did not have the money for a flight. In summer 1992, it was reported that she was trying to find cheap accomodation in Berlin by means of procurement services because she wanted to stay in Germany. This rumour was rather heavy, and it was one of the last rumours I heard. She disappeared from newspapers and the yellow press without notice. For a long time, no one in Germany heard about her.

 
Years later I was told that she lives either in America again or in Peru again or in Spain. As if it mattered. It had always been a point that the totally different kinds of rumours caused some part of the special fascination of Yma Sumac. Reality, on the other hand, has a confusing and sobering effect to the same extent. And even hardcore iconism might fade away  ... So it must be true that she sang at the International Jazz Festival in Montreal in 1997. Also, the latest compact discs published are no rumour, finally containing rare tracks (early works and other mixes of known songs as well as previously unreleased material), like the compilation "Virgenes del Sol". One of the last records brought out was the longplayer "YMA ROCKS!" (mainly a relaunch of "MIRACLES", but re-mastered and with two additional previously unreleased titles which had been produced in 1971 as well). One can get this CD solely over the Internet, though, at this Yma Sumac website: sunvirgin.com (which is not the official Yma Sumac homepage as I have been recently informed - the latter will be mentioned at the end of this article).

Since I have been living in Berlin for many years now, I no longer have any neighbors going crazy (as far as Yma Sumac is concerned). But I regularly receive hot rumours and even information by telephone from my former neighbor. Recently he went , well ... not crazy. He went into a bookshop and bought a book.

One day after his telephone call, I bought the same book called "apropos Yma Sumac" by the German publishing company Neue Kritik. It has several delightful essays and texts which even contain information, as well as a biographical overview and a selection of beautiful photographs. Still, it would be presumptuous to call this book a biography. The fantastic essay of Anna-Bianca Krause unfolds in a quite similar way as the article which is presently coming to its conclusion right here as you read it. But on the other hand, it is really not that surprising that she was also at the '91 Berlin concert (my, even Ades Zabel had been there, the drag queen superstar of Berlin) Aside from that, the main portions of this tract had been created before/indepently of the opulent ramifications by Anna-Bianca Krause (any relations to Reinhard Krause who wrote the splendid article on Miss Sumac together with an interview in the SPEX music magazine in '91?). The book renewed the senses, like Venice renewed the senses of doomed Gustav von Aschenbach for the last time. No,  hardcore iconism never dies, but the devoted iconist must fail his passion, eventually, as time goes by.
 
 

*

Yma Sumac has experienced great days and created sensational moments, that much is an everlasting diamond. Her task, her mission - she really said this once - was to bring people a little bit of happiness in these chaotic, crazy and dark times. She has succeeded in doing this and is even doing so in the present.

Although the happiness which she brings is often not the one which she had intended.
 
 
 

THE END
 
 
 
 
 

          *
 

Additional remarks, beginning from October 6th 2005:

2005-10-06:
Until now, the last sentence of this complex article has been: "Although the happiness which she brings is often not the one which she had intended." This was seen as a let down by many readers and by my former neighbor as well. They felt rather disappointed by this ending. I have been asked why I would become so vague in my final attitudes concerning Yma Sumac, raising the question whether I am still a devoted hardore iconist or not.

I realize that I must go far back in order to deal with this question, almost as far as the existing part of this article, possibly even further. During the following days, weeks and months, I will try to articulate this present state of devotion. While not experiencing any further climax, hardcore iconism has not faded away - that much is certain.
 
 

Therefore, the final sentence of this article presently reads as follows:

With this picture from the glory days of my hardcore iconism, I would like to say goodbye to my readers, for the moment:

 
 

Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Yma
                    Sumac. Sumac - the Voice.
 
 

"MAMBO CONFUSION" , CD Cover Photo



 

Post scriptum: the last but second rumour!

In "ATAHUALPA", the new 72 hour opera by Philip Glass and Bob Wilson, the character of Tlascala (the wise great-grandmother of Atahualpa who can communicate with the spirits of deceased kings, using the sound of her voice) is portrayed by none other than Yma Sumac ! Other cast members are: Ricky Martin as Atahualpa, David Bowie* as Francisco Pizarro, Lila Downs as Princess Xtabay, Caetano Veloso as Inca rebel Huayna, Meredith Monk and Diamanda Galas as Equinoxe One and Two (two Alien visitors from the Cat Eye Nebula NGC 6543) and Rufus Wainwright as Diego de Almagro II (that rebellious son of Diego de Almagro and an Indian woman) who is going to kill Francisco Pizarro during the final act ...

The libretto for "Atahualpa" is based, as it should be noted, on a short dream episode within a radio essay by Daniel E. Aldridge which was broadcast on 22nd of December 1991 by the Nuremberg station Radio Z. And the author of this essay was said to having sued the librettist, a certain Nicholas E. Limansky !

In the meantime, I came to learn that this is just a rumour.
Nobody has sued anybody because of anything.
~

 
 

FINAL RUMOUR:

Obituary from the Los Angeles Times from 3rd of November 2008 (plus a rather interesting photogallery ):
Yma Sumac, Peruvian Songbird with multi-octave range, dies at 86


~

 
FURTHER LINKS OF SIGNIFICANCE:

the officially authorized homepage: yma-sumac.com
(presenting last interviews plus information regarding last concerts, e.g. the Hukilau Festival in October 2005 in Florida)


The link to Nicholas E. Limansky,
author of the biography
"YMA SUMAC - THE ART BEHIND THE  LEGEND" :

divalegacy.com


Another glamorous Yma Sumac website:

sunvirgin.com
(which contains lyrics from eleven of her songs ! ... yes she even had songs with real words)

   
 


  Copyleft 2002/2020 Daniel Emerson Aldridge


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