While last week’s song took us into the remote and icy regions of the North with Nico, this week is an exotic excursion in the opposite direction. I bring you a live version of Yma Sumac’s Chuncho, from the early 1960’s. Was Sumac the Peruvian woman born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo? Was she descended from Incan royalty? Was she in fact a native of Brooklyn whose real name was Amy Camus (Yma Sumac spelled backward), as was long-rumored? About her exact date of birth her biographers are unsure. The mystery seems exactly appropriate for this singer of “Exotica” a craze which swept swinging suburbia in the 1950’s. The music featured lush arrangements filled with instruments of non-European origin (bongos and gongs and such) and odd sound-effects. The music is sometimes corny but often genuinely weird. (An expression of postwar bourgeois fantasy, Exotica is probably the weirdest music ever to become genuinely popular. Way weirder than the brief heydey of psychedelia in the late 60’s and early 70’s.) It’s most famous practitioners tended to be pianist/composers with a Jazz background, like Les Baxter and Martin Denny. But Sumac stood out: everything about her was genuinely exotic, from her looks to her mysterious origins to the incredible four-octave range of her voice, which can go from producing gutteral growls to ethereal wails in an instant. Her 1950 debut album Voice of the Xtabay is still a classic, with songs like “Taita Indy (Virgin of the Sun God)”, “Choladas (Dance of the Moon Festival)”, and the original version of “Chuncho (The Forest Creatures)”. I have chosen this ghostly, stripped-down version from Recital, a concert in Bucharest, Romania, where she is accompanied only by guitar.
April 20, 2009
A Song for Sunday #10