Yma Sumac





There is a period in William Shakespeare’s life that is coined "the lost years" because the luminary vanished without a trace, having left no play or sonnet, not even the tiniest letter to his friends. The same can be said about Exotica’s Queen of the Andes Yma Sumac (1922–2008). Linking her case to Shakespeare over-eggs the pudding and is blatantly far-fetched, I give you that, but it is astonishing in retrospect that after a fusillade of albums in the 50’s, Yma Sumac decides to leave the record business behind… albeit not for good as it turns out years later when the circle is completed: Yma Sumac launches her career with exotic composer Les Baxter on board the inaugural Voice Of The Xtabay (1950), and she ends her album-related career in the same grand way 22 years later with Miracles, a ten-track apotheosis released on London Records and various other labels due to the magic of cross-licensing.


Nine of the tracks are written by Les Baxter, five of which appeared previously on his superb late-Exotica entry African Blue (1969). The scope on Miracles is a tad tighter than usual, as the heavy string and brass orchestras are replaced with the four-man combo of bassist Roger Cowan, guitarist Chuck Cowan, organist Richard Person and drummer Skippy Switzer… making this an unapologetically apollonian Rpck album! With Yma Sumac at the helm! Hell, fire and brimstone!


It is a miracle after all these years: Yma Sumac in the epicenter of pyroclastic electric guitars, lava organs and hammering honky tonk pianos. The opener Remember is all about transformation, mutation, metamorphosis. The chantress woah-wows her way through the caustic coruscation, letting her wordless vocals guide the listener through the angular momentum. The adjacent Medicine Man meanwhile is an early Lover’s Rock or Dub epithelium made of glacial electric pianos, Roger Cowan’s somnolent solanum low-freq bass riffs, Chuck Cowan’s interspersed subcellular melody licks, and of course Sumac’s stacked vox. A plastic aura is in the air, but it’s sunlit and tasty.


Meanwhile, Let Me Hear You features a barycenter of semi-mournful ligneous piano chords, raspy-pulsatile cantos and Skippy Switzer’s lanthanum hi-hats, whereas Tree Of Life is the first artifact from Les Baxter’s African Blue and sees its aliphatic abiogenesis augmented by the mistresses’ over-the-top orthogonality. Flame Tree ends side A in an amicably warmhearted fashion. The former instrumental is made of pulsatile perianth to begin with, but the tramontane octave isospins add much to the joie de vivre.


Side B kicks off with Zebra, one of Les Baxter’s most melodic pieces off African Blue. Its kaleidoscopic-helicoidal tone sequences spawn chromophore ventricles, and it is here where Sumac’s performance seems a tad too histrionic for the song, accidentally tearing down its chemotaxis. On the plus side are the instrumental segues featuring the Hammond organ and an overall centrifugal guitar goodness. The following Azure Sands is an upper midtempo tropopause made of photodissociating limewashed colors, rhythm shifts and a plasmatic punctilio of staggering stop-and-go tercets, making it one of the rockiest pieces of both the African Blue and Miracles album.


While Look Around overs an exclusive ergosphere of lilting sirens, ebullient telomeres and a similarly mercurial vocal folds tohubohu, Magenta Mountain – the last artifact of Baxter’s original instrumental vision – comprises of manifold epigenetic chord progressions that made smoochy Rock songs of the 70’s so lachrymose. Of course these songs haven’t featured Yma Sumac, and so any form of attrition is annihilated via the cherubic-anthemic performance. The finale comes in the shape of El Condor Pasa, the only song written by Daniel Alomía Robles in 1913 already, then made famous in 1970 by Simon & Garfunkel before Yma Sumac adds her magnetotail sermons to the rhythm-shifted polarimetry, adding that kind of weird exoticism that this played-to-death glucan needed.


Miracles breathes and lives two important cornerstones that make this album an incandescent emerald to cherish: first and certainly foremost, Yma Sumac’s pulmonary puissance which was all the more enchanting to contemporary listeners who thought her gone and vanished without the big traces she used to leave behind. And secondly, it is – if only in hindsight – a successful undertaking to recycle a few unique songs and add vocals to them. This is the most curious remark to make, especially so since Exotica and its substyles comprises of almost anything but recycled material, numerous renditions, shedloads of interpretations. This is all true and at the same time the nexus of the various thrills for many followers of the genre, as it is fun to compare beloved gold standards and benchmarks.


That the Queen of the Andes Yma Sumac is the performer of this material and that she has been gone for so long makes the album an ultramafic gemstone. Having said that: Miracles is not necessarily an Exotica artifact anymore. Instead, it is a positively plethoric phoresy, a magnanimously moxie multiplex. Post-processing and dubbing allows Les Baxter’s band to stack multiple tracks of Sumac’s vocals, and while it has been done before instrumentally by Les Paul or on Danny & Dena Guglielmi’s Adventure In Sound (1956), Sumac’s vocals have never been multiplied before. It’s a great hook, making Miracles only more flamboyant and amniotic. Those who find Sumac’s last humongous album too gaudy or a crazy conniption, check out the instrumental base frame called African Blue and be enchanted in a totally different way. 


Exotica Review 490: Yma Sumac – Miracles (1972). Originally published on Dec. 22, 2017 at AmbientExotica.com.