Peru is widely known for a handful of things: gastronomy, beautiful landscapes, and a mythical past. Unfortunately, some Peruvians will find it difficult to remember that “the bird who turned into a beautiful woman” was born here.
By: Irina Quispe
According to Damon Devine, she was “one of the first international artists to travel around the world” (Los Angeles Times, 2022). I am referring to Zoila Emperatriz Chavarri Castillo, internationally known as Yma Sumac. A centenary has passed after her birth (1922 – 2022). Commemorations, concerts, and celebrations are held in many countries, such as France, Germany, Netherlands, Colombia, Hungary, and the United States (Damon Devine, 2022). So, what has Peru done? Its national Post Office has released a postage stamp, and the Teatro Municipal de Lima has offered a commemorative concert. Although I appreciate those efforts, she deserves more from this country that has treated her poorly.
“The Diva of Four Octaves” gave concerts worldwide and left an indelible imprint wherever she went —literally. If you visit one of the most famous American districts, Hollywood, you will find the Yma Sumac Square. A few more steps and you will see Yma Sumac’s star on the Walk of Fame. On the other hand, in Peru, there is a small square in Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, built in honor of her. A place near Teatro Municipal de Lima has been suggested to be the commemorative square for the otherworldly singer. Unfortunately, this proposal by Jorge Valverde, director of Asociación Cultural Isegoria, to the Ministry of Culture and Municipalidad de Lima has not been successful (El Comercio, 2022). However, please, do not be skeptical about their intentions. Perhaps, the investment would be substantial, and we all know a light purse is a heavy curse! Nevertheless, there are many alternative ways to spread the word about her marvelous achievements, although our national wallet lacks coins. Theaters and libraries, for example, usually project films for free. Well, Yma Sumac acted in some movies (Secrets of the Incas, for instance, was recently remastered by Paramount Studios). Do you see the relationship? Film projections! I firmly believe they will be packed to capacity.
Devine points out that “there is a bit of controversy in Peru about them not having done anything significant for Yma Sumac’s 100th birthday.” There is a reason why Yma Sumac preferred Los Angeles, her home, over Callao, her birthplace. In July 1955, she became an American Citizen, but it was not until 1974 that Peruvians demonstrated their absurd disenchantment. Following accusations of “Americanizing” Peruvian music, young, stubborn people threw rotten vegetables at her vehicle. Besides, José María Arguedas was her staunch critic. He wrote that The Queen of Exotic “has deformed Quechua songs to make them more accessible to the superficial and frivolous meaning of the city public. It was necessary to strip this Andean music of all its essential lyrical content, its depth and its genius, turning its uniqueness and noblest forms into a spectacle pleasing to the vulgar crowds” (Arguedas, 1977. My own translation; any mistake is involuntary). Of course, Sir! Yma Sumac was a never-before-seen gifted singer. As Ernesto Guerrero said, she was a soprano who “could have been a traditional opera singer. However, she decided to do something unique” (LA Times, 2022). I strongly recommend the reader listen to Queen of the Night Mambo -yes! Imagine yourself dancing Mozart’s aria Der Hölle Rache in a Cuban style. It is time for us to finish that nonsense resentment and start looking up Yma Sumac’s singularity.
Finally, it is necessary to stress that this essay could not have been written if Yma Sumac’s official website had not published trustworthy information about her. As you can see, many activities can be held to commemorate the amazing voice of Yma Sumac, and film projection is one of them. Even a monument should be built, but let’s take it easy. Our country is now focused on other businesses and old displeasures. Nonetheless, how can we admire something we do not know? Talking about her and listening to her recordings are crucial as both information and songs are available on the internet. The Diva makes me think about people with extraordinary talents. Indeed, most of them do not have the luck and support she had. When they are revealed, I hope Peru knows how to treat them adequately.