Probably Peru’s greatest artist and definitely the best known internationally, female soprano Yma Sumac is nothing less than a legend.
Born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo, she is said to be a direct descendent of Inca Atahualpa on the part of her mother, Ima Shumaq, though this, as well as her exact year and town of birth, isn’t truly known by anyone other than the woman herself.
It was her exotic heritage as much as her stunning vocal abilities that made her such a hit in the US – the vocal range of this “Inca Princess” covered as much as an amazing 5 octaves during her peak.
She became well known in South America at the start of the 1940’s, adopting a variation of her mother’s name and recording a Peruvian folk music album in Argentina in 1943 with her husband’s band Compañía Peruana de Arte. After moving to New York in 1946, it took just 4 years of making a decent living performing folk music shows that she was signed by Capital Records.
During the 50’s her fame was phenomenal, recording various albums and taking a huge roll in the emerging lounge music scene with her Hollywood-style adaptations of Andean folk songs. Appearing in various films (see her in Secret of the Incas(1954)) and a Broadway musical she became and US citizen in 1955, shortly before divorcing, remarrying and divorcing again. In 1965 she toured the world, performing across the Americas, Europe and even the Soviet Union.
She spent the 1970s living in Peru until the 1980s when she started performing huge shows with vigour once more in the United States, also recording music for Disney and releasing a new album.
Continuing to perform well into the 1990s she is currently living (and resting) in Los Angeles. Her work has since been used in the films The Big Lebowski, Ordinary Decent Criminal, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Death to Smoochy, as well as various TV commercials and in the song Hands Up by the Black Eyed Peas.
Update: Yma Sumac passed away on November 1, 2008