The Power of Voice and Fantasy

The Power of Voice and Fantasy

Before starting a fascinating artistic life that would earn her a star on Hollywood Boulevard, Yma Sumac was, in fact, Zoila Emperatriz Chávarry (1922 - 2008), a girl from the heights of Cajamarca who boasted having had exotic birds as singing teachers. Since then, Yma understood that fiction would be useful not only to reinvent herself with the lavish originality that would make her the first Peruvian to arrive in Hollywood, but also to paint her country with myths and legends in a time that it was little more than a sketch for the world: an arcane and unknown country that deserved to be seen.

"No novelist has ever experienced the presumptuous feeling that reality is demanding a novel from him, that it is not he who is looking for a novel, but a novel that is looking for him." This quote that Javier Cercas applied to literature is very useful to rethink the historical reconstruction of Yma Sumac, a character that exhibits the features of an artistic career, but also of an extravagant novel: the one that emerges from the convergence of a magnificent voice with the musical talent and powerful imagination of her husband and agent, Moisés Vivanco. Like literature, Yma Sumac's past, somewhat blurred and undoubtedly distorted by the duo, rests on a jumble of fictions, fantasy ideas and invented memories, like when she claimed, among other things, to be timeless (“I was born two thousand years ago in Peru, but I am still young”, she said) or a ñusta, an Inca princess descendant of the last emperor, Atahualpa.

Through a narrative where fiction and reality masterfully intertwined, Yma Sumac ('I am the most beautiful' in Quechua) and Vivanco, constituted the vanguard of an enterprising “choledad”, or Peruvian mestizo identity, that, without government support, represented Peru throughout the whole world. However, it is important to remember that Yma’s Inca ancestry story seduced but also caused confusion and hilarity, if not the contempt of her compatriots, mostly intellectuals from the indigenist movement who accused her of deforming Andean culture. "A Smithsonian's guide, written by Disney and directed by Dalí" was how an obituary described the performance of a woman difficult to catalog and who, along with Vivanco, was a pioneer of Latin music and culture in the United States.

Yma's voice was cause for praise and very deep analysis, but also myths: her legend birthed the idea that her voice could induce to self-hypnosis, or that her four-octave register allowed her to travel to primordial times. Scientists, such as the case of Dr. Arment, pointed out that there were similarities between Yma's unique singing and Yemeni, Babylonian and Balinese music. Her voice not only served as a scape for the listener from the concerns of the modern world, but also allowed a "glimpse into the past" in the midst of contemporary whirlwind. That is why the Spanish composer, Manuel de la Falla, recommended Yma that she should sing naturally and avoid vocal coaching. Yma, who as a young woman imitated Deanna Durbin, brought a new and refreshing air into the world of music while promoting the internationalization of Peru.

Yma's triumph was due to her unique voice, but also to the musical and stage skills of Vivanco, a gifted charango player himself, who was able to put on massive, fantasy-laden shows that recalled the greatness of the Inca empire. In some of his annotations from 1950, we find one that describes a musical show directed by him: "... we performed at Soldier Field in Chicago, surrounded by two thousand dancers from that city, and accompanied by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra”. At the performance, endorsed by General MacArthur, he claims that 110,000 people attended, that "the dancers were dressed in Inca costumes from Peru", and that Yma was crowned "the princess of the native people of the United States and Canada" by all the Native American delegations that attended the act.

Through the years, Yma and Vivanco made Peru an object of consumption for the world. This cultural project maintained an undeniable link with the goals set during the Patria Nueva period (1918 - 1929), lead by President Augusto B. Leguía, who promised to bring Peru closer to modernity through capitalism. It was a time when the Peruvian government opted to promote artists from outside of Lima (such as Vivanco, who was awarded by Leguía for his early musical talent), whose ingenuity renewed an Andean tradition that had been dormant throughout recent history. By the time it was acknowledged that this modernity had not been fully achieved, and the indigenist movement came to a standstill, Yma and Vivanco had already left the country to never return again, but managing, in their own way and with great success, to expand the symbolic borders of a more romantic and mythical Peru, rebuilt from the legacy left by the writings of Garcilaso de la Vega. This Peru was more visible to the world and tailored to their own nostalgia. It was a Peru that, at last, recognized and accepted them in all their extravagance and uniqueness.

As a historian, it is obvious that reality is the focus of my attention. However, in the case of the trajectory of Yma and Moisés, what I find fascinating is the role they played in the construction and even deconstruction of the image of Peru that they went on to project from Mexico to Moscow, with stops in Hollywood, Buenos Aires, London, Paris or Tokyo. Although Yma's voice was described as incomparable, there was a musical and stage genius behind that unrepeatable "product". This was Moisés Vivanco (called the Peruvian George Gershwin), a Huamanga artist who had been relegated due to the brilliance and power of his own creation. Without his aesthetics and, above all, his elaborate fictionalization of Yma’s legend and the "Peru of the Incas" that they exported to the world, the true dimension of the Andean lyrical diva cannot be explained. This novel would be the story of how fantasy and uprooting made it possible for two countryfolk to conquer the world and take their dreams to the limits of the imaginable.


 Carmen E. McEvoy