Better Than Coffee: Yma Sumac, Peruvian Songbird

The voice of exotica singer Yma Sumac is so effing redonk, it’s almost beyond human comprehension. In her heyday, she recorded an astonishingly wide vocal range of more than four octaves, from B2 to C?7 and could hit notes in both the low baritone and upper coloratura register.  You know how certain singers have claimed the ability to shatter crystal? I can’t find the article offhand, but I’m pretty sure Sumac actually did that once, in a controlled scientific environment. Callas and Sutherland ain’t got nothin’ on this self-styled Inca princess from Peru (at least in the glass-breaking department).

Sumac in The Secret of the Incas (1954).

On groggy mornings when your nose is plugged up and you’re afraid nothing will crack through the crust covering your cerebral cortex short of a Neti pot of liquified Naga Jolokia, try some Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo-flavored exotica instead.

Oodles more vocalese noodles under the cut.

23 Responses to “Better Than Coffee: Yma Sumac, Peruvian Songbird”

  1. k paul blume Says:

    …a lady also well loved by the makers of crossword puzzles.

  2. john colby Says:

    What film is that from. Its got Charlton Heston doing Indianna jones in it ????

  3. Lydia Says:

    Her voice is amazing, but what I’m really envying here is her wardrobe. Yow.

    (shallow, perhaps, but honest!)

  4. Sera Noise Says:

    Yma Sumac…
    Her voice sends tingles down my spine ~
    I’ll put on Mambo! on the stereo and listen to it all day.

  5. Seamyst Says:

    Love this!

    And actually, Mythbusters proved that it’s possible for an unaided human voice to break a glass – Jamie Vendera (I think) demonstrated it.

  6. Peter S. Says:

    And at the mere mention of her name I have “Gopher Mambo” firmly lodged in my noggin.

  7. six06 Says:

    i only know her through exotica, but i would have loved to have seen her expand her range to do opera. it’s a shame that that sort of talent was only seen in a very selective genre. i haven’t heard the rock album, but good for her trying something new.

  8. Jim Says:

    Some may be more familiar with her than they realize. I couldn’t find a clip, but in The Big Lebowski, in the scene at the beach party where they’re throwing the naked girl up and down the music that plays is her.

  9. gooby Says:

    My mom would listen to Yma Sumac while she cleaned up around the house. My sister and I would laugh at at it and try to imitate her low growly tones while doing monkey dances. We thought her music was so silly, so we’d go back to our rooms and blast Disco Duck or Pete’s Dragon or something of the kind.

    Then, much later in my early twenties or so, I returned home for the holidays, and when I heard that same album again, my jaw dropped.

    Now, I loves Ms. Sumac, and I barely listen to Disco Duck at all anymore. What do kids know?!

  10. Jessica Says:

    What a range indeed…YOW!

    Speaking of ladies with nearly incomprehensible vocal range, I could imagine Diamanda Galas being a fan of her work…

  11. Tanya Says:

    I only know her because of “Ataypura” on the Big Lebowski soundtrack. Her voice is incredible.

  12. lonelocust Says:

    There’s tons of documentation of voices shattering glass. I suspect you can find dozens at least on YouTube, but I’m currently in a place where YouTube is not accessible, so I can’t go find it at the moment. One doesn’t necessarily need an amazing voice to do it. If the resonance of the glass in question is in one’s tessitura, and one can find the resonant frequency, one can probably shatter a glass with singing. The ability to pick out the right resonance from tinking on the glass is the most impressive thing I’ve seen.

    The Discovery Channel’s new slow-mo show did a bit with breaking glasses with pitch resonance, preceded by several shots of a singer doing it unaided on a variety of glasses.

  13. captaincrash Says:

    I want to marry this lady. Its those eyes, THOSE EYES my GOD those eyes. And her voice… Thankyou so much for bringing this to my attention. You may applaud yourselves masters of online blogs and amazing magazines.

  14. Joseph Francis Says:

    I caught her a few years ago at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery Day of the Dead Festival in Los Angeles.

  15. David Forbes Says:

    You know what makes me happy? Seeing the words “effing redonk” when I open up the internets.

    And damn, that’s a supervillainess level set of pipes. Thanks, Mer!

  16. Mer Says:

    John, that’s from The Secret of the Incas, and yes, Lucas has said that Indy’s trademark look was inspired by Heston’s role.

    Six06, apparently she DID do some opera (the Queen of the NIght’s aria, no less!) but there are no known recordings. Bummer, right?

    Joseph, I remember when she did that appearance. Looks incredible. Wish I’d been there. She’s apparently been in and out of hospital in recent months, poor lovely.

    You’re welcome, David. We be keepin’ it rizzle up in dis bitch. ;P

  17. wrayb Says:

    yeah, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald wrapped up in a Latin Goddess package, Didn’t realize I should check youtube for her highness.

  18. LostLigeia Says:

    I don’t know if Diamanda Galas is a fan of Yma Sumac, but Diamanda’s work gets compared to hers very often— they both have such impressive ranges! It’s great to finally have a proper listen after hearing so much about her.

    Speaking of Diamanda, I would give my left tit to hear her perform live. My heart would probably explode.

  19. Vivacious G Says:

    I don’t have time to watch all of these right now, but I will – her voice is amazing, lovely rich, with an edge of mourning almost like it could haunt you and of course the range, my god. Thank you.

  20. Joseph Francis Says:

    She just died Saturday, November 1, at the age of 86

  21. Tanya Says:

    RIP, Yma. I just found out about her passing.

  22. gooby Says:

    We luvs ya, lady.. You were an amazing creature.

  23. James Byrne Says:

    If you require proof that Charlton Heston inspired Indiana Jones in SECRET OF THE INCAS, log on to my website devoted to this fab film. As well as the whole movie on view, there are hundreds of colour photos from the movie, articles on Heston and Yma Sumac, and tons of other stuff. It’s here: