Tuesday, 11 November 2008

YMA SUMAC: Ataypura


Yma Sumac died eight days ago, one day before the world changed; she was 86, and hadn’t been well for some time, and even though most artists hailed as great influences and monumental figures when it’s too late to be of any use to them – as the current unsubtle posthumous threading of Jeff Buckley into the tapestry of heritage indicates, as opposed to when he was alive and active, when his records struggled to get past #50 in the charts and the music press could take or leave him – Sumac suffered more than most.

She was a generation, and possibly two generations, away from the World Music security blanket, though one wonders whether Daniel Lanois or Ry Cooder would have misread her as avidly as Les Baxter or Billy May did. Even when she was a brief, florid sensation in various parts of the fifties – a declamatory Esther Williams of song – there was the expected poking about, the “Amy Camus” apocrypha, fits of temper, punch-ups, an uncomfortable marriage, the limited lifespan of someone who, despite or because of her background and the noted four octaves, could do little but be “exotic.” A colourful novelty which fissured when the colours of the sixties broke into bloom, but what contribution could a better managed Sumac have made to 1967?

Influences, however, are rarely a matter of straight, manicured highways from A to B. Sumac was unavoidably Peruvian, yet famous songs like “Wayra” sound Chinese in their stop/start glossalia. “Ataypura,” however, sets out what she was about with a sensitivity that wasn’t always available to her; a bifurcated study in perspective whose first section commences with careful tom toms, bowed bass, hushing strings and lighthouse French horn, over which a contralto rises, wordlessly but panoramically; without foreknowledge the voice is nearly androgynous, or possibly supra-human, an instrument expressing only what it knows it wants to express.

There is the faint gingham thread of showbusiness exoticism about this sunrise until, after an abrupt sharp dip in the string line, the song breaks open with percussion and (mock?)-ritual chants and Sumac’s solemn sustenatos give way to playful pointillism; blurring, whooping, yelping and chattering – the track fades at just after three minutes but, like the end of Van Morrison’s “Slim Slow Slider,” seems to be suggesting a fulsomely unstable parallel universe under its surface. And it’s here that we get Sumac’s real (Western) legacy; not just the anti/above-language intonations that would stretch past Billy MacKenzie to Elizabeth Frazer, not simply the unfettered abstractions that would inform Diamanda Galas and both Buckleys (think of Cathy Berberian, her improbable but logical twin, as Yma Sumac on Mars), but the joy of tonguing and voicing for its own sake, for service to expanding the palette of her music, a link which extends right through one of the essential leylines of European improvised music in particular, from Evan Parker’s soprano to Julie Tippetts and her glass blowers and vacuum cleaners; environment/home as developmental factor and invisible participant in collective music making. She should have been encouraged further out there, maybe even taking her sedate audiences and comedy impersonators with her; yet her blood, her being, flows through many important arteries of what we today know as music. The Peruvian tribes from which Sumac sprang – like the tribes of Kenya – have a patient and systematic way of changing the greater world, and succeeding, wiser generations have their patient and systematic way of ensuring that justice is eventually seen to be done.

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