PERU: Mambo! - Yma Sumac
Updated: Apr 23
Not many albums can pull of an exclamation mark in their name, this one however most certainly deserves the attention it implies
The 1950s is a decade romanticised by some, seen as a simpler time by many, it is fair to say that the world was modernising and globalising in a way never seen before in the aftermath to the Second World War. In terms of music, records from other countries were making their way overseas, though due to the era it was still mostly male artists that were dominating the charts in most countries. That said, there were a small handful of women who had conquered the planet in the decade, making a name for themselves and leaving an almost unfathomable legacy behind. In the United States, Ella Fitzgerald was kicking up a storm, whilst in Europe chanteuse Édith Piaf had become the name on everybody’s lips. The Western world was however, gaining curiosity on sounds from further afield and arguably no Latin woman captured the global imagination at the time like Peruvian phenomenon Yma Sumac.
“...rather feels like it is replicating the sound of the rainforest, almost like a call and response between the different animals thanks to Sumac herself and the varied instruments taking on the differing roles in this naturalistic dialogue.”
In the same year as Mambo! was released Sumac had performed in places as far flung as Burma, Afghanistan and Australia such was the fanfare that went around her. Having built an international reputation for her extraordinary register in which she sung, her fourth record Mambo! epitomises that leaving behind a record that surmises her unique vocal capabilities that only a small handful such as Freddy Mercury have since been able to follow. It is worth noting that part of the interest that surrounded Sumac was her ‘exoticism’. Her music was dubbed ‘exotica’, a far more controversial term than the much-maligned genre label of ‘world music’ if you ask me, but even though with modern lenses this orientalism may be seen as problematic, I would argue that at the time Sumac’s foreign allure was being embraced in a positive time. It is difficult to image that the majority of people would have been gawping at her like a freak-show act, able to sing like she is perfectly imitating a bird, but rather her success attests to the fact that audiences were in admiration of her, and thus we see the beginning of an openness to mestizo people like herself.
The album itself, much of which was composed by her husband Moisés Vivanco, is not merely a demonstration of Sumac’s vocal capacity, though at times it does feel like it goes a long way to showcasing it, it is also a superb piece of music and the orchestra go some way in introducing much of the world to a style and instruments they may not have been previously accustomed to. The album begins with the iconic intro to Bo Mambo in which Sumac commences with a deceptively deep voice before then changing octave for the first time to sound almost like she is duetting with herself. The horn section shows itself off with their suave and sexy instrumental, interspersed with bursts of trumpets, evoke something completely different. Sumac herself doesn’t overshadow the music, she just fits it perfectly.
Elsewhere on the album, we see the horn sections highlight other instruments more profoundly than the trumpets, with my favourite song Gopher Mambo focusing on elevating the sound of the saxophone, as each note played on the instrument packs such a punch. The track features Sumac's voice almost mimicking the percussion on the song when she is not busy hitting absurd soprano notes. This is not the only time that her voice takes on an instrumental quality. On Jungla, for example, the most Andean instrumentation in its style, rather feels like it is replicating the sound of the rainforest, almost like a call and response between the different animals thanks to Sumac herself and the varied instruments taking on the differing roles in this naturalistic dialogue.
There are experimental tracks in which Sumac and Co. are left to go wild such as her high-pitch chirping like a bird reaching some absurd notes on Taki Rari where the music borders on being cacophonous and Five Bottles Mambo a bizarre song even by her standards, packed with the sound of triangles as she adopts the vocal role of a Louis Armstrong-type throughout. This is not the only time we hear her scat-singing, however, and she does so in a more coherent way on Goomba Boomba in which the orchestra play second fiddle to her one-woman showpiece here, as she shows off various vocal styles.
The orchestra seem to know exactly when to come in and take centre-stage during the record. For example on Malambo No. 1 the orchestra quiet down to allow her the space to sing, but when she is silenced they are in full throttle with an array of percussion to be adored. They play a variety of styles to a high-quality such as on Chicken Talk, which feels less Latin to start with and almost like a classic swing track before moving into free jazz, with a similar chord progression to that in Somali artist Maryam Mursal’s Lei Lei which I just adore. Sumac’s wide-ranging capabilities come to the fore on Cha Cha Gitano which commences with a horn-heavy intro that leads into this stunning flamenco track. I have been fortunate enough to see a fair amount of flamenco in my time in Andalucia and no matter how impressed I have been by the array of vocal talents on display, never have I come across quite like this. It is truly outstanding and fitting of the entirety of this album, that proves Sumac to be a jewel in the crown of the global 1950s music scene.