Yma Sumac
Legend Of The Sun Virgin






Peruvian singer Yma Sumac's (1922–2006) second solo album for Capitol Records, Legend Of The Sun Virgin, is released in 1952 and connects the dots of the previous album Voice Of The Xtabay (1950) further. It builds on the trustful relationship with composer and arranger Moisés Vivanco who married Sumac in 1946. Another bunch of eight tracks makes it onto the original version, all but one of them written by Vivanco. Legend Of The Sun Virgin offers two particular surprises, and then again, it actually lacks any additional surprise, for it is perfectly congruent with the picture one has in mind about it: once you know a 50's album by Yma Sumac, you know them all. Melodrama, lamenting chants and the occasional dose of friendliness and joy are skillfully woven into the eight tracks, but the aforementioned two surprises are noteworthy nonetheless, for they firstly comprise of a darker mood – once a composition has scents of gloominess, it gets really dusky – and secondly features a multifaceted backing choir.


While the latter arises time and again on her albums, its outlook here is particularly savage and at times cheeky, not only echoing her chants, but also seemingly leading a life on its own, with clever words and interjections spluttered, thus enhancing the Exotica feeling tremendously. The remaining material is usually mystical or eminently Latin, and again, this is totally expected from the Queen of Exotica. Since Yma Sumac's voice is very demanding and asks the listener to follow it through all existing octaves a female being can possibly access, this album is decidedly not for everyone. While it is accessible at the end of the day, its melodrama might put off today's listeners, especially those who long for the instrumental side of the genre. And yet, Legend Of The Sun Virgin is a worthwhile addition to everyone's Exotica collection; the detailed reasons are given below.

The album launches with Karibe Taki, and if there is one remarkable thing to say about it right from the get-go, it is the fact that it's originally written by the Peruvian composer Hernán Braña, but altered and rearranged by Moisés Vivanco in order to put Yma Sumac's voice properly into the spotlight. After Sumac's short solo chant, the aura of this song is torn between mystique and pompousness. Liquidly swirling string bursts plus a delicate interplay of a smoothened alto flute with orchestra bells provide the enigmatic scent, whereas the short horn eruptions in tandem with the additional floating Hollywood strings evoke a pressuring majesty; needless to say that Sumac's Peruvian lyrics boost the vivacious colors further. Even though the arrangement is clearly orchestral, it inherits a certain intimacy at times, a deliberate omission of all too many instruments at once. The second phase of the song consists of a clanging percussive section with interspersed bongos and playful, nightingale-like ooh-ooh-oh vocals. It makes for a great start into this third album that showcases the ever-changing patterns and developments of Vivanco's arrangements. From this point on, all remaining tracks are unique dedications to his wife.


While Wittalia! (Fire In The Andes) features the darkest and most threatening horn eruptions in any of Sumac's material since it is suitably enriched by both a large mixed choir as an echoing device of Sumac's gloomily sung lead vocals, short harp infusions and flowing violins that turn this song into a much brighter fanfare with a gorgeous onomatopoeic tshuu-waaah noise, the following Lament surprises with strings that are as lamenting as they are cinematic, shimmering in golden colors and pushed further to the sunset-red side by brazen orchestra cymbals and a superbly ritualistic intersection of droning timpani, tambourins and bongos. Yma Sumac's voice mostly consists of incomprehensible, well, laments, with the remaining parts being sung in Peruvian. I'm not sure what to think about this particular track. It's very murky and danger-evoking, the colors orange and red are omnipresent, and yet are there signs of vividness interwoven. A song for fans of Dark Exotica. Side A finishes with a gleeful arrangement of two minutes called Zana. Featuring staccato xylophones, wafting strings and a laughing Latin male doo-whop choir in juxtaposition to both Sumac's many octaves and an alto flute-intermixed backing melody, this is a jocular, sun-laden song that trades in the cinematic seriousness for an eupeptically catchy singalong ditty. It twinkles like a sunburst. And Yma Sumac fans know what that means.

Side B launches with Kuyaway (Indian Love Song) which some versions and re-issues of this LP rename to Kuyawa, possibly due to a typo. The cinematic panorama is back in force, with a droning brass ensemble, spectrally screeching violin strings and deliberately pale flutes forming the stormy background for Yma Sumac's performance. She is actually accompanied by a second female singer, but this time it is the cascading xylophones and the exceptionally thundering timpani as well as the middle section with a choir of male savages that augment the jungle Exotica factor more than a bit. The whispering-singing chants by Sumac as well as the chooga-chooga backings make this a superb track, yet again fully developed and focused on a rabid, orchestral setup. Suray Surita is a gentler, more solemn composition with an entrancing concoction of a baroque-like warmth in-between the fissures of the strings, splendidly entangled harp twangs and the occasional staccato trumpet. Sumac remains in higher tone regions on this rather soft ballad, which all of a sudden turns into an eminently calamitous outing due to a fulminant brass and cymbal encounter. The color of the strings turns into a dark red, before the composition ends the way it began, rather solemn and melancholic. 


Up next is No Es Vida which surprises with the boldest reliance on multiple horns, rapidly sung lyrics and hollow textures of the backing bongos. Sure, trumpets, trombones and the likes have been featured before on this album, but never in such a Latin fashion. The whole construction gleams due to the sizzling-hot horns, and since it is also a joyful, blithesome performance, there is anything wrong with it; except maybe that it does not sound overly exotic, but that's where the bongos come into play. The final Mammalay! harks back to the mood of Suray Surita, but injects noteworthy bongo passages and a main violin into the doleful-pompous closer. Yma Sumac's performance is almost distastefully over the top. Don't get me wrong, melodrama makes up 50% of the chantresses' output and I'm well used to this aural device of megalomania, desperation or devotion, but here Sumac is adding too much rouge, so to speak, and the maelstrom of pressing strings and brass instruments is too much for my taste. On the plus side, however, lies the fact that Mammalay! builds on the previous moods, fits right into the typical material delivered by Sumac and hence closes this album in a successful and coherent manner. It is just a tad too glaring and loud in my opinion. Trepidation alert!

Legend Of The Sun Virgin is an Yma Sumac album by the numbers, presenting the same potpourri of cinematic, Latin and exotic songs that made her debut Voice Of The Xtabay from 1950 so successful. The depicted settings are sometimes very dark, tense and shockingly eruptive, but this is pretty much expected by a Sumac/Vivanco collaboration. More problematic is the worn-off uniqueness that made her debut so utterly enchanting and accessible to this day. Legend Of The Sun Virgin delivers more of the same, as most successive albums by vintage Exotica artists do, but not only does it lack the carved out melodies of Les Baxter who provided two compositions for her debut, it also omits particularly interesting, truly memorizable and noteworthy riffs and sections. However, I am sounding way too negative, for the majority of the material is once again highly progressive, with cleverly interceding sections and percussive elements; and let me not forget to mention the male and mixed choirs that appear in many a tune, echoing the lyrics by the chantress, but also providing savage blurbs and outcries that can be rightfully linked back to the Exotica genre… or better still, linked forward to it, as Vivanco's imaginative arrangements precede the genre by a whopping seven years if you take Voice Of The Xtabay as the point of origin.


If you buy later versions of Legend Of The Sun Virgin or a digital copy of it, you will receive four additional tracks that were recorded during 1952 and did not make it on the original incarnation. Legend Of The Sun Virgin is not as varied as Sumac's debut, but this could well be seen as an advantage. If you are not fond of vocal Exotica – since the genre is mostly driven by instrumentals – or melodramatic settings or even Yma Sumac's voice in particular, then this album is clearly not for you, as the many octaves the Peruvian singer's voice targets and exceeds can indeed be a bit too much and above the heads for many a listener. In the given context and in regard to Sumac's other four entries for Capitol Records, the Sun Virgin is more noble, less savage.


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 people. From postcards to music remixes, plenty of vivacious artifacts are collected there.


Exotica Review 148: Yma Sumac – Legend Of The Sun Virgin (1952). Originally published on Nov. 24, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.