Yma Sumac






Yma Sumac demystified. That’s the story behind Mambo! in a nutshell. What sounds worrisome and lackluster via the pixels of your reading device makes a wondrous U-turn in sound form. This album is magnificent! Released in eight-track versions by Capitol Records in 1954 and an even better eleven-track twelve-inch LP in 1955 – which is the base of this review –, Peru’s superstar and vocal seductress Yma Sumac (1922–2008) returns to the scene, aided by her then-husband, the skilled composer Moises Vivanco who comes up with the entire material of this album, as well as the Rico Mambo Orchestra led by Jazz trumpeter, composer and arranger Billy May. Until 1954, Yma Sumac’s music is far ahead of its time and enormously eclectic, convoluted and labyrinthine. One could also say: esoteric. Or worse: strange.


Fully cinematic and orchestral, with yearning, pride and anger packed in every of the eight octaves the chantress is comfortably at home in, her debut Voice Of The Xtabay (1950) is the foundation stone of her career which is as keen on Exotica as on Space-Age flavors. Legend Of The Sun Virgin (1952) and Inca Taqui (1953) continue her journey through the Peruvian groves, mountain ranges and alcoves. Mambo! breaks with this formula, for better or worse (I think: for the better). It contains the ingredients which make Exotica the genre it becomes in the latter part of that decade. Gleaming horns, thickets of bongos and congas and Yma Sumac’s vocals blend and create a superb cocktail which – gasp! – leads to Sumac’s first fiesta album. The exclamation mark in the title does not lie. This is Yma Sumac at her  finest, exchanging the mystified moods for high voltage Mambo critters that are anything but unique and colorful. Read more about a fascinating album and its three columns of success below.


Bo Mambo fittingly opens the joyful album with huge amounts of brass eruptions, even stabs, but all of them are sun-dappled, euphonious and jocular, not exactly the kinds of moods you would link to Moises Vivanco’s arrangements for his then-wife. The horn helixes by Billy May’s Rico Mambo Orchestra are so enormously gleaming and spiky that they resemble the Hollywood formula of fighting Romans or gladiators… in space. Once Mrs. Sumac enters the scenery, the impetus of the marimba cascades and trumpet infusions does not decrease, probably the biggest surprise to take away. Certainly deliberately so, the Queen of the Andes does not tower above the scenery, is not keen on outshining the instruments, the limelight is farther away than ever. Here, in this rare case, it is the textures that reign and make Bo Mambo a delightful hybrid that is torn between Latinisms and a no man’s land somewhere out there. Rhizomatic Space-Age. Taki Rari is next and fuels the Latin taste with a lamenting, downwards spiraling polyphony on both the xylophone and the brass instruments. The bongos and congas are beaten energetically, Yma Sumac’s “Mambo” chants and falsetto chirps add plasticity and otherworldly star dust to the location. Vivanco’s composition is delicately bucolic, its rusticity is draped in dun colors, depicting an evening in a cavern somewhere in South America. Again, the presentation remains bound to earth.


The following Gopher is a sanguine critter hued in sunset, thus seeing its aural color range intensified. The male “ugh” screams as well as the interplay between the hollow percussion bubbles and the multilayered trumpets, trombones and saxophones make this an archetypical Latin tune. The seven-note leitmotif is played in a staccato way, each tone hits like a severe punch. In this situation, the voice of the Sun Goddess fits perfectly, displaying the full galactic range of her voice. The orchestra remains in brutish spheres, for Chicken Talk follows, a genuinely joyful tune awash with light. The tone sequences are mostly in major, Yma Sumac decides to go all-in on the onomatopoeic side of the vocals, the horns glow in a saturated hue, the marimba riverbeds are refreshingly aqueous, and most importantly, Billy May’s Rico Mambo Orchestra is given a lot of time to play unperturbed by any kind of vocals. The clinging shakers and bamboo rods round off the album’s animal section.


Side A closes with Goomba Boomba, and its anacrusis differs entirely, evoking hints of the mountainous airflow of the Andes. A bass guitar, earthen acoustic guitar layers and short conga vesicles then lead to a proper Mambo that is kindled by an enormously multiplex performance by the temptress, first residing in darkly acroamatic alcoves before rising into the air. Even the composition is multifaceted and lightens up over its course due to the inclusion of a virtually Caribbean guitar aorta which, regardless of its thinness, illumines the darkness with its golden aura, although it later changes to a Latin timbre. On top of this, quite literally so, is Yma Sumac. Here the orchestra is inferior and purposefully quieter. A melodramatic and comparatively long corker.


Side B opens with another stomper, Moises Vivanco’s Malambo No. 1, known and loved forevermore for its effervescent-punchy rising theme with the immediate spiraling-tumbling downfall. Every tone literally hits. Named after the volcano and resembling the Space-Age effulgence of the opener Bo Mambo, the grandiloquence of Malambo No. 1 is even greater. Droning timpani and a percussion underbrush par excellence underpin the brightly sparkling voice of Yma Sumac. A curious ducking effect takes place during the verses: whenever the queen starts singing, the orchestra’s volume level decreases. Malambo No. 1 is not embracing per se, but simply cool, dazzling and, I believe, a timeless artifact that immediately lets the old phrase “they don’t produce music like this anymore” come to mind. Already inebriated, the album continues with Five Bottles Mambo and carves out the iridescence of triangles, cowbells and chimes in order to link to the glassy title. The translucent aura is not the only signature element in here; the second one is a downwards spiraling trumpet coil with glitzy xylophone arabesques as additional ornaments. The shapeshifting gestalt of the Sun Virgin augments the plasticity further.


Indian Carnival follows, and even though it is a slightly too comical and overloaded piece with one too many textures and implied rhythm shifts, the surface structures succeed big time, be it the technicolor marimba billows, the maraca-mimicking fricatives of Yma Sumac or the celebratory flourish of the brazen instruments. Cha Cha Gitano outshines the former piece by a wide margin with its love-lost melodrama that is so over the top that it links back to the first three albums of Yma Sumac. The first 60 seconds are supercharged with the glissando and staccato of klaxon horns and a feisty Flamenco guitar; not even one single beat is dropped. The mood is as crepuscular and shady as the front cover, the reverberation of Yma Sumac’s voice conflates with the backdrop’s pitch-black null space before a red-tinted Cha Cha fundament is erected with the aid of typical male chants. The falling four-note motif is absolutely catchy, each tone is ameliorated with the respective “cha” exclamation. This would be a camouflaged torero fanfare, especially so in the revved up second phase, but a female torero? Not in the 50’s!


The penultimate Jungla returns to the savage rain forests of yore by the means of its cocktail of timpani, bongos and congas, but the darkness of the prelude is glaringly illuminated only a few seconds later by fresh cowbell-accentuated horn splinters. A superb, uplifting tune that leads to the midtempo closer Carnavalito Boliviano which could have been envisioned by Xavier Cugat. It is that bright, but not exclusively so. Loaded with sunbursts, euphonious parts and shadier foils, the shouting male choir and Yma Sumac become hopelessly entangled. The constant changes and maraca- as well as marimba-expanded plateaus are awe-inspiring, making Carnavalito Boliviano an eclectic yet accessible final joyride.


One thing is for sure: the colorful style of Mambo has never before been interpreted in such a colorful way… and ever since. Three factors make Mambo! an eminently delightful album. Firstly, the voice of Yma Sumac has to be mentioned at first, of course. Regardless of whether the material is interpreted cheerfully, with a tongue-in-cheek attitude or needs to emanate an aura of innocence, Peru’s famous singer knows how to handle both the stylistic and the vocal range with ease. Secondly, the involvement of Moises Vivanco makes sure that his wife does not merely perform renditions or interpretations of well-known material. The opposite is the case: each and every one of the eleven cuts is terrifically unique and lives up to the hype around Vivanco. He was indeed a highly skilled composer. And thirdly, the material is splendidly instrumented by Billy May’s Rico Mambo Orchestra, with Space-Age horns aplenty and par excellence.


Whether sun-soaked, arcane or dangerously energetic, the players know how to transform Vivanco’s compositions into hyper-electrifying Mambos. From the blazingly bright get-togethers in the superb Bo Mambo and supremely catchy Malambo No. 1 over the fleeting visit to a partial mystique with Goomba Boomba to the heavy drum sections in Jungla, the album is Yma Sumac’s most accessible work of the early till mid–50’s. Sound-related accessibility comes with a price: gone are the days of exotic enigmas, of aeriform outlooks over the Andes and crusades through magic forests. Mambo! is as close to a party and that Latin feeling as Yma Sumac ever got. But it is a delight and highly enthralling. It sounds fresh and immensely meaningful to this day. Recommended even to those listeners who find Yma Sumac too obscure and otherworldly. Give the lady a chance, this album really rocks!


Exotica Review 232: Yma Sumac – Mambo! (1954). Originally published on Jun. 29, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.