1950, 1953, exotica, experimental music, Les Baxter, lounge, must-hear, vocal acrobatics, Yma Sumac
Cover Critique: All very theatrical. If She was set in the Andes… The CD reissue frames her in black, obscuring details of her ornate costume. She’s got more medals than a general. Three stars for effort.
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“Voice of the Xtabay”
Taita Inty (Virgin of the Sun God)Ataypura (High Andes)Accla Taqui (Chant of the Chosen Maidens)Tumpa (Earthquake) Choladas (Dance of the Moon Festival) Wayra (Dance of the Winds) Monos (Monkeys in the Jungle)Xtabay (Lure of the Unknown Love)
K’arawi (Planting Song)Cumbe-Maita (Calls of the Andes)Wak’al (Cry for You) Incacho (Royal Anthem) Chuncho (The Forest Creatures)Llulla Mak’ta (Andean Don Juan)Malaya! (My Destiny)Ripui (Farewell)
Yma Sumac (1922-2008) had a voice among voices. Four octaves, going from a glass-shattering soprano (okay, maybe not, but be careful with your speaker volume nonetheless) to a gruff and husky growl that hits the Louis Armstrong range, if not quite Yat-Kha. Her publicity campaign claimed her to be a Peruvian princess and (to shroud her identity further) actually just a Brooklyn housewife called “Amy Camus.” Yeah right. More importantly: in 1950 her first album, Voice of the Xtabay, came out and sold over a million copies in its first year. People were in the mood for something different.
However, it’s not completely out of left field, because unfortunately Les Baxter produced much of the actual music alongside her husband Moisés Vivanco and this leads to some ridiculousness on the more operatic tracks such as the leadoff, ‘Taita Inty.’ Who wants to hear an opera singer arranged by Les Baxter? Not me, that’s for sure.
Thankfully, the album loosens up after the opening number and becomes a great deal more fun. ‘Tumpa’ has Sumac engaged in what sounds like scat singing, ‘Wayra’ is hilarious in a good way, ‘Choladas’ should have been the opening track and things just keep improving as the CD progresses. Only the first eight tracks were on the original 10″ Xtabay and after that the strings dissipate and are replaced with guitar (which makes a world of difference).
In 1953, Baxter gone from proceedings, Inca Taqui was released. Reissue has combined this with Xtabay so listeners can get their money’s worth. The standout track of the whole experience is here: ‘Chuncho,’ where she whistles, whispers and thrums like nothing you’ve heard before over a musical background meant only for texture. It’s a sonic painting of a rustling, breathing forest and it is as credible as anything Eno ever did. Genius.
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The whole record keeps going for something different and a great many songs (Vivanco is actually a capable songwriter) have sub-sections enabling Sumac to try something new with her voice. ‘Incacho’ is all over the place. The drumming is ethnic (or “tribal” as I’ve no idea how genuine it is), which makes up for the Hollywood strings that were poured over the Xtabay half like a thick syrup.
As a CD, Voice of the Xtabay goes on an overall upward swing, steadily improving on the ears as it progresses. The listener adjusts, makes concessions along the way and all of a sudden everything sounds great. This entire record is bizarre – at first off-putting and then invigorating. You start to wonder where this woman’s been all your life, why you didn’t like it the first time, and if her sound developed and got even more interesting later…
Listening advice: don’t try to play it while housecleaning. Pay attention to Yma Sumac’s voice. This is not easy listening music. If you dislike it at first, give it another try. I can’t do it justice in a review because it sounds so very fifties and yet this woman ought to be keeping company with Yoko Ono and Bjork. If that doesn’t intrigue you, I don’t know what else to say. Go listen to ‘Chuncho.’