Yma Sumac

Band members                             Related acts

- Yma Sumac (aka Zoila Imperatriz Charrai Sumac del Castillo) 

   (RIP 2008) -- vocals


  supporting musicians: (1972)

- Chuck Cowan -- guitar 

- Roger Cowan -- bass

- Richard Person -- keyboards 

- Skippy Switzer -- drums, percussion 



- The Cowan Brothers (Chuck Cowan, Roger Cowan. 

  Richard Person and Skippy Switzer)





Genre: bizarre

Rating: 4 stars ****

Title:  Miracles

Company: London

Catalog: XPS 608

Year: 1972

Country/State: Peru

Grade (cover/record): VG?/VG+

Comments: original London inner sleeve

Available: 1

Catalog ID: 5242

Price: $75.00


Though she had an amazing four-and-a-half octave voice, most of Yma Sumac's extensive and eclectic recording catalog is simply too exotica and MOR-ish for my tastes.  That said, Sumac's a fascinating character and someday I'll have to do some reading on her.  


Depending on which story you chose to believe, she was born Zoila Imperatriz Charrai Sumac del Castillo (easy to see why she would have opted to shorted her stage name) and was part of a Peruvian family that traced it's roots back to Inca royalty. A competing story says she was an American housewife named Amy Camus.  Regardless, by the mid-1940s Sumac's talent and exotic good looks saw her an in-demand singer, performing at nightclubs throughout the US and Canada.  In 1950 she was signed by Capitol, releasing a series of quirk/exotic LPs ("Voices of Xtabay", "Omca Taqui", "Legend of the Sun Virgin", etc.) that were largely co-written and arranged by her husband Moises Vivianco.  She coupled that with a modest film career, but by the late-1960s her recording career had largely run out of steam.  That may have been the impetus for this early-1970s reunion with former producer Les Baxter.  Her first studio album in over a decade, aash flow was apparently another reason for the album.  Her recording career had effectively died by the mid-'60s, this early-'70s album perhaps intended to offer Sumac an opportunity to generate some cash and attract a new generation of fans.

So why's 1972's "Miracles" in my collection?  Well, read the fawning liner notes "Miracles re-unites the extraordinary five - octaves voice of Peru's Yma Sumac with Les Baxter, the producer of her first album, "The Voice of Xtabay" (released in 1950).  Acclaimed for her  powerful and unique artistry, Miss Sumac achieved world fame during the Fifties with the use of Mr. Baxter's productions.  He has chosen to record Yma in a contemporary setting with a four-piece rock band and modern recording techniques.  The results are a stunning showcase for an unparalleled performer.  Yma is an adventurous musician.  She as conquered many modes, from Peruvian folksongs, through operatic arias, as wall as popular Latin songs, and international folk music.  Now., in her unique way, she tackles rock.  Miracles melds the most extraordinary music of the century with the most extraordinary voice of three generations - an improvisational tour de force."


If nothing else, those liner notes provided a pretty accurate description of what to expect.  Tracks like ''Remember", 'Medicine Man' and 'Flame Tree' surrounded Sumac's unique vocals with contemporary rock arrangements.  While a couple of songs hinted at Baxter's MOR tendencies ('Tree of Life' and 'Look Around'), the songs were all pretty good.  Sumac also benefited from a strong support band in the form of The Cowan Brothers (guitarist Chuck Cowan, brother/bass player Roger Cowan, keyboardist Richard Person, and drummer Skippy Switzer).  Interestingly, for the most part Sumac didn't really sing her way through the material and when she actually did ('Remember') you couldn't really tell what language it was in.   The woman actually could sing (check out some of her earlier Spanish albums).  Instead, most of her performances were better described as scatting or vamping with Sumac frequently taking advantage of the songs to display her impressive range - literally going from a growl, to a stratospheric screech in a matter of seconds ('Let Me Hear You').  She also displayed her ability to mimic various instruments, including brass, a guitar voicebox, and even a thermion ('Magenta Mountain').  At least to my ears the effect was similar to riding an aural roller coaster.  That probably didn't sound all that promising, but the funny thing was that the album was surprisingly good in a weird kind of way.   Sumac subsequently panned the album, though she's admitted to liking her performance on 'Magenta Mountain'.  Interestingly, though the album credited Les Baxter as producer, the actual producer was Robert Covais.  Baxter served as the band leader and penned nine of the ten tracks (the lone exception being the strangest cover of Paul Simon's 'El Condor Pasa' you'll ever hear).   The  production credits resulted in a lawsuit being filed and the album was pulled from the shelves shortly after being released.  It's now fairly rare.


Just a warning, this album isn't going to be for everyone ...


Side note - I've always wondered how the Kansas-based Cowan Brothers ended up backing Sumac and eventually figured it out.  The band members met in the late-'60s while playing in the Las Vegas show band The Forum.  The Forum were managed by Les Baxter, who'd had a role in Sumac's early career and her "comeback".  Baxter no doubt put the two entities together. 


"Miracles" track listing:
(side 1)

1.) Remember   (Les Baxter) - 4:05   rating: **** stars

Wow !!!  I have to admit to being completely blindsided by this tune.  Having heard much of Sumac's earlier exotica catalog, I was expecting something along the same lines ...  Well the lyrics (I'm using the word loosely), were in Sumac's unique "language", but the combination of those vocal gymnastics and a decent rock arrangement made this tune pretty darn amazing.

2.) Medicine Man   (Les Baxter) - 3:02   rating: **** stars

Pretty mid-tempo melody with Sumac scatting/yelping her way throughout.  At 50, she could still hit those bird-like  high notes.  The tune was actually tapped as a single in Italy:

- 1972's 'Medicine Man' b/w 'Remember' (London catalog number HL 1583)

3.) Let Me Hear You   (Les Baxter) - 2:35   rating: **** stars

'Let Me Hear You' found Suamc getting downright funky and showcased her ability to mimic different musical instruments.  She may not have even needed the backing band on this one.

4.) Tree of Life   (Les Baxter) - 2:53   rating: **** stars

Sumac aiming for the pop charts ???   Lots of wow-wow-wow and those bird-like trills.   I actually once played this during a party I was giving.  Let's say folks were not too entertained by my musical choice.

5.) Flame Tree   (Les Baxter) - 2:44    rating: **** stars

'Flame Tree' was bouncy and commercial enough to have been released as a dance number.  


(side 2)
1.) Zebra   (Les Baxter) - 2:49
    rating: **** stars

Back to a more rock-oriented setting, complete with a nifty Richard Person Hammond B3 solo and the results are ...  well, strange, but quite fascinating.  

2.) Azure Sands   (Les Baxter) - 2:35   rating: *** stars

East going rock arrangement coupled with Sumac at her most operatic delivery ...   The first half of this one sounded like something that might have been recorded for a porn flick.   =  )   And then she switched to her lower gears, literally growling her way through the second part of the tune.  Amazing voice.

3.) Look Around   (Les Baxter) - 2:15  rating: ** stars

Pretty tune that quickly degenerated into MOR-ish scatting.  One of the album's most forgettable tracks.

4.) Magenta Mountain   (Les Baxter) - 3:00  rating: ** stars

The opening segment of 'Magenta Mountain ' recalled some of her earlier exotica releases, but then the tune went off in rock opera direction.  Once again, there wasn't any real singling, rather Sumac kind of moaning and shrieking her way through this one.

5.) El Condor Pasa   (Paul Simon - J. Mitchberg - D.A. Robles) - 4:50   rating: **** stars

Easily the strangest Simon and Garfunkel tune you'll ever hear.  Imagine an opera singer zonked out of her mind on some illicit substance and managed to forget all the words ...  And around the three minute mark the whole thing went off the rails with Sumac and company diving into a completely different funky tune.   I'll give it an extra star for simply being so bizarre. 



"Miracles" also proved to tbe Sumac's final studio album.  Suffering from colon cancer, she died in a Los Angeles assisted living facility in November, 2008.