TIME Music

This Is What It Was Like to Hear Yma Sumac Sing in Concert

Yma Sumac
George Douglas—Getty Images Peruvian soprano Yma Sumac (1922 - 2008) performs at the Royal Albert Hall in London, 1952.

The Peruvian singer was known for a vocal range that spanned at least four octaves

Tuesday marks what would have been the 94th birthday of the Peruvian singer known as Yma Sumac, who was born Sept. 13, 1922, and became known worldwide for a vocal range that spanned at least four octaves.

In August of 1950, Sumac performed for an audience of 6,000 at the Hollywood Bowl. Her trilling soprano voice—which earned her the nickname ‘Peruvian Songbird’—surprised and thrilled the crowd, previously unfamiliar with her range, according to a TIME review of the concert:

For the first few bars of a Peruvian folk chant called High Andes, the full-figured Peruvian girl onstage rumbled roundly at the bottom of the contralto range. Then, to their astonishment, she soared effortlessly up a full four octaves, began trilling like a canary at the top of coloratura. At the end of her first song, the audience was still too surprised to raise more than warm applause. The second, Tumpa (Earthquake), brought cheers; after the third, a pyrotechnical Inca Hymn to the Sun, the applause and cheers swelled to a roar for encores.

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The audience’s gusto was tempered only by guest conductor Arthur Fielder, who—running late for another engagement—directed the orchestra into Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slav to end the evening, cutting short the applause. After that night, Sumac’s career vaulted to an entirely new level, according to the concert review.

By the next night-fall, there was nothing too good for 28-year-old Yma (pronounced Eema) Sumac, the girl with the four-octave range (normal: two octaves). The critics were raving, movie producers were fighting over her, Capitol was rushing out an Yma Sumac album called Voice of the Xtabay, which it had recorded this spring. So far as Yma herself was concerned, it was just about time for a little attention.

Sumac, who died in 2008 in Los Angeles at the age of 86, wowed crowds for decades, and performed well into the 1980s.

Read the full review from 1950, here in the TIME Vault: Daughter of the Sun God

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