The inimitable South American vocalist Yma Sumac is one of the figureheads of ‘50s exotica, often if not always mentioned in the same breath as Les Baxter, Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman.
And for good reason. Sumac was exotica’s ultimate thrush and its much-needed female half. Her music and album covers, like Baxter’s and Denny’s, encapsulated all that was at once breathtakingly evocative and ridiculous about post-War exoticism. The music – arranged and composed for the most part by maestro Les Baxter and Sumac’s husband-at-the-time Moises Vivanco – was pure South American pastiche, an orchestrated fantasy of sun maidens and pasión and lost Andean cities and strings and flutes and percussion.
As with Denny or Baxter, Sumac’s album covers played a critical role in extending the fantasy. They featured the striking young Sumac, resplendent in precious metals and stylized native finery, poised mid-song amidst elaborately staged tableaux of Incan imagery and gorgeous orange and blue volcanic sunsets. Usually there was the suggestion of fire. Always there was an air of ancient mystery.
But it was her voice that was the singer’s immediate identifier and lasting claim to fame. A shattering instrument that Sumac made to ululate, trill, groan, moan and swoop in a virtuosic exposition of sound and color, it was said to be four octaves, and hailed in its day as a revelation. (Hear excerpts of “Xtabay (Lure of the Unknown Love)” and “Chuncho.”)
In no way did Sumac make for easy listening, though. This is perhaps what distinguishes Sumac among exotica’s dominating figures, and what doesn’t get mentioned enough. One didn’t casually put on a Sumac record the way one did with a Baxter or Lyman record. Sumac’s voice was just too commanding, too jarring, too avant-garde to work as a background mood-setter. Theater unto herself, Sumac exuded charisma and mystery and compelled listeners’ attention with something that was more sexual power than sexuality. Furthermore, while a Les Baxter or Martin Denny made no particular personal claims on the imaginary lands they conjured, Yma boldly embodied those lands with her music and album covers – even if hers were hardly any more authentic. The whole psychology of the Yma Sumac listening experience was different.
Sumac was first discovered touring the country with a South American folk trio in the late ‘40s. Her first album, Voice of the Xtabay (Capitol Records, 1950), was a sensation, selling in the hundreds of thousands, her five or six subsequent albums also charting well.
The common line was that Sumac was a child of the remote high Andes, and a direct descendent of Incan royalty, though details of her biography have never been confirmed. Sumac’s diminishing public presence in the decades after her ‘50s heyday did little to refute the legend that persisted even up to her passing in 2008. I’m not the first to suspect her biography was in reality somewhat more mundane.
But, still, there could only ever be one Yma Sumac. Interestingly, there were some notable releases from other vocalists that do bear some comparison. Jewish singer Bas Sheva’s The Passions is the famous, and probably best, example. Leda Annest’s wordless Portrait of Leda and Sylvia Copeland’s Wild is Love are also cited. But that guileless American habit of capitalizing upon others’ commercial precedent was for once subdued by the greater force of Sumac’s personality and sheer distinctiveness. Though now utterly fascinating, and irresistible as a subject, at the time to try to sing anything like Yma Sumac was to invite instant, and inevitably unflattering, comparison. For the most part those who would make like Sumac, this week’s exercises included, would remain a one-off phenomenon.
Note: These three selections can also be found at my new site, the Exotica Project.
Obscure being the defining word here.
Easily among my top-ten favorite exotica 45s, “Sunset Mood” brilliantly incorporates many of exotica’s definitive motifs – its bird calls, vibraphones, flutes, etc. Its flipside, a calypso-cum-samba, is also a Baxter composition, though not a terribly interesting one, even if it does include, as I believe it does, the ubiquitous Plas “Pink Panther” Johnson on saxophone. It all makes me wonder whether Carmen Lesay (if there truly was a Carmen Lesay) was marketed as a “tropical” nightclub act.
The record’s production values and Los Angeles pedigree also lead me to think that other jazz-versed session musicians and Baxter associates – players like pianist Eddie Cano, percussionist Larry Bunker and guitarist Howard Roberts – may have been involved. But, alas, that’s pure speculation. Even the publishing company, Nemrac (Carmen spelled backwards), reveals or confirms nothing.
All leads run out early and fast with Carmen Lesay.
2. Bat’ya, Main Theme of Exodus (Chelan C-500)
Compelling creative forces intersected to produce this gem in 1961 or ’62.
The two significant names here are Bat’ya, of course, and Bumps Blackwell, whose orchestra supported her on this date.
Robert “Bumps” Blackwell (1922-1985) was a talent scout, A&R man, songwriter, producer and arranger, a pioneer who helped lay the groundwork for Los Angeles as the pop music capitol of the ‘60s. Though he’d remain a fixture within the Los Angeles music industry well into the 1980s, Blackwell’s name is most frequently associated with early rock ‘n’ roll and soul, and with his championing of Little Richard and Sam Cooke, specifically.
Bat’ya is by far the lesser-known quantity. An Israeli-born, European-trained singer and performer, the one album to her name – Bat’ya Sings Great Israeli Hits – released on Frank Sinatra’s then-new Reprise Records in 1961, reveals little biographically about the singer.
Bat’ya and Blackwell’s collaboration is not as unlikely as it sounds. Blackwell, a skilled musician and bandleader, had a hand in a number of contemporaneous pop, jazz and Latin dates, for starters. But their “Main Theme of Exodus” still sounds like nothing you’d expect. Released on Blackwell’s Chelan Records (a label he’d run off-and-on for over a decade), it capitalizes on the popularity of Ernest Gold’s 1960 Exodus soundtrack theme while sounding nothing like it or, for that matter, Bat’ya’s Great Israeli Hits album. Abstract and otherworldly, Bat’ya is clearly channeling Sumac more than anything else here, summoning the dark spirits from other, more shadowy places.
The 45 – and the elliptical references to a certain Bat’ya scattered in the literature – do nothing in the way of revealing any details of her biography. All of Bat’ya’s documented performances (including, I believe, a few television appearances) in this country can be traced to 1960 or 1961, which lead me to speculate that she did not settle in the states for long. “Cyprus Wine,” this single’s flipside, is another atmospheric and jazzy nightclub original, its songwriting credit to Blackwell along with a mysterious “D. Elyagon” and “I. Miron” (whom I’d guess is Issachar Miron, writer of “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” and other Jewish folk songs) further compounding the mystery.
3. Sylvie Mora, Taboo (Verve V-10197×45 B)
Subtler shades of Yma than this week’s other two selections but, still, they’re there.
In Mora’s hands, “Taboo” – possibly my favorite of many chestnuts by Ernesto Lecuona, that genius forefather of modern exotica – is given one of its infrequent, and one of its best, vocal readings.
Mora seems to have been a pop and jazz vocalist based, again, on the West Coast, but with just a few scant 45s to her name, I’m obliged to report that she too exhausts further investigation.
This selection, released in 1960, would be the second of Mora’s 45s for New York City-based jazz powerhouse label Verve Records. Both this and her excellent first 45 (with recordings of favorites “Summertime” and ”Misirlou”) were recorded in Los Angeles in August of 1959 under the direction of the great West Coast jazz bandleader, arranger and composer Russ Garcia. Aside from a 1975 45 on Columbia Records, for whom she recorded as Silvia Mora, these would form the extent of Mora’s discography.