Yma Sumac
Voice Of The Xtabay






Voice Of The Xtabay, the debut of Peruvian singer Yma Sumac (1922–2008) is the earliest coherent Exotica release you can possibly find, having been released seven years before the genre's name was coined by the eponymous release of Martin Denny in 1957. Sure enough were there jungle records before it, for instance Les Paul & Mary Ford's Brazil (1948), and don't get me started on counting ancient Hawaiian music from the 1870's to the Exotica genre as well, but there are several markers that put Sumac's eight-track 10" LP on the brink of the – back then to be established – colorful genre.


Firstly, Sumac delivers a truthful presentation of unique material that depicts the characteristics of music from Peru. Secondly, two of the original compositions are delivered by none other than one certain Les Baxter, an up-and-coming composer who made the 50's his decade, so to speak. As it is commonly speculated on the net, his name is even mentioned in proper pidgin anagram fashion in the title already: Xtabay = Bayxta = Baxter, a cheeky innovation that probably nurtured the legend of Yma Sumac actually being Amy Camus, a former housewife who took over a fake stage persona à la Korla Pandit. Thirdly, even the remaining six tracks that were written by Peruvian composer Moisés Vivanco comprise of pompous piano arrangements, powerful violin fugues and exotic congas. Voice Of The Xtabay thus has the term grandeur written all over it, has sold millions of copies, established Sumac's career, is generally well-received due to its foreshadowing of the Exotica craze… and is still not suitable for everyone. 


It's a well-received release that's deemed important, but it can only reach a narrow fanbase nowadays that is thinning as you're reading this. It's an admittedly special kind of release, but for a certain clientele only. My reserved reaction has been the same in regard to Alfred Apaka's posthumously released live album The Golden Voice Of The Islands (1963), whose silky voice reminds of Elvis at times, but since those listeners already have their Mississippian icon, why should they ever start worshipping Apaka? I'm way more impressed by Sumac's voice though, who covers all ranges of tonality you could imagine. So let's check out the good as well as the bad parts of this melodramatic but colorful release, of which I'm reviewing the original edition (the subsequent ones contain the same tracks in a different order).

Virgin Of The Sun God (Taita Inty), composed by Moisés Vivanco, is the gateway to the emerald-green jungle panorama of Peru. Launching with a temple gong and tense sunset-colored violin strings, Sumac's piercing voice cuts through the air like a Space-Age theremin or paradisiac flute, only to float back into abyssal tone regions. The effect is as bewildering and amazing today as it was back then. Clinging tambourins and vivid bongos work charmingly in the instrumental intersections which are themselves wonderfully enhanced by the vibrato of the spiraling violins. The mood shifts between mystique, danger and lushness, and the song works always best once the Hollywood strings erupt in a glinting fashion. The opening track is a marvelous gem, and even though it seems indecisive about its direction and displays several moods, it is yet cohesive and thankfully as focused on the little melodies as it is on displaying Yma Sumac's voice.


The following Lure Of The Unknown Love (Xtabay) is, unsurprisingly, a song written by Les Baxter. It's a cinematic piece with loads of violins either bursting or spectrally whirring in juxtaposition to Sumac's Peruvian lyrics. The mood is dusky, the feeling ritualistic due to the menacingly droning timpani drums, but lightened up in parts thanks to liquedous harp cascades. The melodies are much more carved out, proving Baxter's ear for melodies. This is still no glitzy Exotica tune rather than an intense ride that fully immerses the listener, with occasional sprinkles of euphoria in an otherwise drum-fueled, highly serious ritual. While Vivanco's High Andes! (Ataypura!) is a hybrid that first adds accents of heretofore unheard majestic piano chords and variations of a four-note motif on violins before it breaks loose in the second phase with a tribal bongo frenzy and male ugh! screams in close vicinity to Sumac's lamento, Monkeys (Monos) is the brightest, strongly Latin song of the whole album, with people laughing and cheering, flutes playing effervescently and a mixed choir echoing the lyrics of Sumac. The song itself is blithesome and uplifting, but definitely out of place considering the cinematic qualities and distinctive seriousness of the preceding material.

Side B opens with Chant Of The Chosen Maidens (Accla Taqui), the second and final composition co-written by Les Baxter and John Rose that continues the overall brighter atmosphere in contrast to side A. It features four-note xylophone motifs, glockenspiel creeks, double-bass droplets in the form of droning contrabass accentuations, dreamy orchestra strings and an overall bright atmosphere that works well in tandem with Sumac's melodramatic oo-oo-ooh! vocals. Dance Of The Winds (Wayra) is the first entry of a triptych delivered by Vivanco that fills the rest of side B. Of particular interest are the maracas-supported conga groove as well as the punchy harp twangs plus the brazen orchestra bells that altogether paint a gleeful Mambo that is keener on the string- and flute-side than on the piano accents; the latter is included, but only introduced in the second phase as a complementing device.


The penultimate Earthquake (Tumpa!) is banefully titled, but the actual arrangement doesn't resemble the title at all, as it is in fact a solemn ballad full of crunchily slapped double bass backings, dreamy flutes, wonderful violin streams and a strong performance of Yma Sumac who first sings in a dark, aggressive vibrato, but lifts her voice to higher regions as the song progresses. The second phase changes the rhythm and resembles an upbeat, joyful journey which is fueled by a delicious bongo groove that leaves enough room for Sumac's voice to shine. Only sparsely do the other instruments join the ride downwards. It is one of my favorites, especially so since Sumac's voice isn't terribly melancholic here.


The final Dance Of The Moon Festival (Choladas) closes the release in pastel colors. Said composition is actually a fanfare, with gorgeous staccato violins, brass accompaniments, exhilarative flutes and Sumac's chants. The complementing violin washes shimmer in milky colors, and the bongo base frame that runs as a golden thread through this track is only successfully beaten by the short harp inclusions. It's a highly accessible arrangement, and as it is common in fanfares, their catchiness is perceptible from the get-go. It's a strong track, and thankfully not as saccharine as the Monkeys (Monos) ditty on side A.

I admire the original release of Voice Of The Xtabay for its considerable progression. What starts in a pompous, gloomy and enigmatic fashion with a string of lamento tracks where Yma Sumac is perfectly placed, both brightness and conviviality grow larger from track four onwards. Admittedly, I would've preferred another offering of the mysterious material that seems more fitting for Sumac's broad voice range and melodramatic settings in general, but even the Latin compositions, the Mambos and fanfares are delicately produced. The use of exotic percussion is glaringly perceptible in each composition. But there's one thing I've briefly mentioned that's all the more important: Voice Of The Xtabay isn't solely about Yma Sumac's talent. Sure enough does she leave a lasting impression on every track thanks to her soprano voice and the several octaves where she is right at home, but it is the instrumental setup that's most impressive.


A huge amount of different strings, brass and percussion instruments is presented, and each and every song depicts its own setting, there's no boredom or repetition to be found. That's the reason why I like this record so much. It's the instrument- and tempo-related variety, the strong melodies and even the seemingly less memorable sound carpet that work so well in tandem. It's a strong high-budget debut and thankfully readily available in all digital music stores, on CD, even on vinyl. This album had it all; way before the Exotica genre took off. I recommend it wholeheartedly to Exotica listeners who are wary of vocal tracks, even those who are put off by Sumac's voice after a short pre-listening glimpse. Give this album a chance, as it is skillfully put together and injects the clichéd feeling of Peru flawlessly into the ears. A clear-cu(l)t classic, and rightfully so!


Further reading:

  • @YmaSumacForever collects and re-tweets several memorabilia related to the Peruvian chantress.
  • There's a great and insightful picture-laden Tumblr blog dedicated to Yma Sumac and her music- and stage-related live, run by the same dedicated followers as the Twitter account. From postcards to music remixes, there's plenty of vivacious artifacts assembled there.


Exotica Review 111: Yma Sumac – Voice Of The Xtabay (1950). Originally published on Aug. 25, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.