November 3, 2008

The Grand Finale of Yma Sumac, 1922-2008

Peruvian-born singer Yma Sumac passed away yesterday. My obsession with her began just like any other; growing up in small-town cultural dustbin, a brush with anything exotic and otherworldly triggered intense desire and curiosity. They were beacons from an alien world just beyond the horizon, one I longed to escape to.

I remember my miserable sad-sack job folding shirts at a store in the mall. I had just (barely) graduated high school and was beginning to wonder if I had pissed off some esoteric acne-god in the process. Overall, I just didn't personify the "look" that our store was selling; my managers knew it, and my sales reflected it. I was supposed to be excited to start community college in a few weeks, but it felt like a death sentence. Generally, my inner monologue while folding polo shirts for hours went something like this: "Fuck... fuck. Fuck!"

The canned corporate-approved music that played on a loop overhead usually only added fuel to my desperation, but there were bright spots. One tape in particular had the B-52's "Summer of Love" on it, and Dj Dimitri's "A Very Stylish Girl" (I was too larval to realize the sampled lines as being from Breakfast at Tiffany's). There was also this song, which I thought I'd heard bits of on television. On a break I wrote down the song and artist from the cassette tape's label, and looked forward to hearing it at least once per shift. Eventually the corporate office sent a new tape to be played every day; I asked if I could keep the old one, but of course my managers refused, insisting that it had to be disposed of according to protocol. A few weeks later I disposed of myself mid-shift, saving them the trouble. After a long search (oh, those pre-Amazon days!) I was able to get my hands on a copy of Mambo! and contemplate the mystery of Sumac's voice and identity at leisure. What kind of person is this? How do I get there from here?

It would have required more than time-travel. Her music and image were theatrical even by 1954's standards, occupying the uncanny valley somewhere between Doris Day and Bettie Page. This is wasn't an era when most women were painting on viperous lips and fingernails and festooning themselves with every imaginable feather and ornament like silent-film stars. Yma was a stranger to Americans in more ways than one, and it suited her fine; somehow she still found her audience and made a strong case for contact with alien life-forms. Over fifty years later I could sense that without even knowing what she looked like; I didn't know why I wanted to keep listening -- I didn't even know exactly what I was listening to. There was no hope for me in the familiar, in the attainable. If I was ever going to find happiness in the world, I would have to get lost and stay there for a long time.

In most ways I probably have less in common with Sumac than almost anyone else in the world. I feel lucky, however, that I took the time over the years to dig deeper into her music, plumbing her monstrous growl and high-altitude birdsongs for secret worldly information. I suspect that I owe her for demonstrating the splendor of a unique world built for oneself, one that exists parallel to the known worlds in some ways and perpendicular in others. Yma Sumac shares credit for that with lots of other individuals, for sure -- but I think she'll always stand out in my mind compared to other artists whom I've been obsessed with over the years, because I've never for a moment fallen under the delusion that I ever really understood her. She's as much a stranger to me now as she ever was -- even moreso now that she has passed from this world, leaving me with so many unanswerable questions. What kind of person was this? How do we get there from here?

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