Acclaimed for her extraordinary voice, Peruvian soprano Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo, known internationally as Yma Súmac, is without question the only artist in the world able to execute the “trill of the birds,” or triple coloratura – a musical technique involving a rapid succession of notes within the vocal range – easily reaching the low notes of a baritone without using falsetto or the whistle register.
Yma Súmac is a world-class artist who astonished millions of spectators with her distinctive voice that, despite her death, continues to captivate the world through her musical legacy.
The talented soprano was born on September 13, 1922 in the district of Ichocán (Cajamarca, Peru). Years later, she rose to artistic fame under the moniker Yma Súmac, from the Quechua phrase Ima Sumaq meaning “how beautiful.” A descendant of the last emperor of the Incas (Atahualpa), she worked from a young age to showcase and share the riches of her heritage through art.
A prodigious voice
Zoila Augusta was a self-taught singer who achieved remarkable technique through innate discipline and unconditional love of our ancient culture. Her musical career took off after her debut on a Lima radio station in 1942, which caught the attention of musicologist and composer Moisés Vivanco. He would go on to marry her in a sumptuous wedding at the foot of the Misti volcano in the department of Arequipa.
After marrying Vivanco, she joined a group of 46 singers and dancers on a tour around South America, where her impeccable voice did not go unnoticed. After the Second World War, the Peruvian singer, now living in New York, achieved huge success in the United States because of a trend in music that brought admiration and attention to exotic and Andean strains.
Around that time, Yma Súmac’s imposing image and phenomenal voice sparked the curiosity of big-time producers eager to promote new musical talents, particularly from ancient cultures with much to pass on. Under these circumstances, in 1950 Súmac signed on to US label Capitol Records and cut her first album, Voice of the Xtabay.
She later worked with renowned American orchestra conductor Billy May, with a repertoire of melodic Andean songs. But this versatile artist was to again prove to the world that a single genre could not contain her talent, releasing her third album titled ¡Mambo! (1955), a work that captured Afro-Cuban rhythms.
Following her magnificent production, she went to win over new international audiences and launched her musical career in the Soviet Union, where she recorded with the Bolshoi Symphony in 1961 and became very popular.
A Peruvian talent in Hollywood
The repertoire of the so-called “Peruvian Songbird” features pieces like The Hummingbird, La benita, Indian love, Indian Carnival, among others. The artist gave to the world great albums like: Voice of the Xtabay (1950), Legend of the Sun Virgin (1953), Inca Taqui (1953), ¡Mambo! (1955), Legend of the Jivaro (1957), Fire of the Andes (1959) and Miracles (1972).
She also dabbled in the world of cinema under the auspices of Charleston Heston in the film Secret of the Incas (1954), where she sang Ataypura. The role allowed her to show off her art and the riches of her motherland.
Thanks to her discipline and undeniable talent, she became the first Latin American and only Peruvian to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In recognition of her artistic career, a magnificent compilation of her work, entitled Queen of Exotica, was released in 2005, fueling the fervor of her most loyal fans.
After a dazzling career marked by hard work and countless awards, the singer also nicknamed the Incan princess died of colon cancer at age 86 on November 1, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. Her passing was mourned by the entire genre of music and a generation who will remember her through the music she left behind.
In 2016, the search engine Google paid homage to her on her 94th birthday by publishing a special doodle that appeared on the site’s home page.
A Peruvian talent that fills us with pride and deserves to be revered and remembered for both her beautiful music and the strides she made to establish Peru’s identity around the world.