Review and Analysis of Voice of the Xtabay by Nicholas E. Limansky
From Yma Sumac - The Art Behind the Legend
used with permission - all rights reserved, © Nicholas E. Limansky
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The eight selections of Voice of the Xtabay remain Yma's most popular recordings. They make a definitive statement about this singer and her peculiar abilities. The appeal of these performances is best described by a quote from a review of one of Yma's early 1950s concerts, by the Los Angeles critic, Albert Goldsberg.
"To hear her weave the fantastic counterpoint over the complex rhythms of her accompaniment is at last to experience something new in music."
Over the last fifty years, Voice of the Xtabay has seen many pressings and formats. Originally, the monophonic recordings were simultaneously pressed onto 78, 45, and 33 rpm (10") LP [see note below - Webmaster]. In 1956, when Capitol decided to re-release all the available Sumac recordings as 12" LPs, they re-assessed the pressings. Since both Voice of the Xtabay and Inca Taqui stood alone and had no additional cuts waiting in the vaults to be released, it was decided to combine the two into one 12" LP of sixteen selections with the generous timing of 48 minutes and 41 seconds. In 1963, it was re-channeled into "Duophonic Stereo." Although the re-channeling provided more spacious and brilliant sonics than previously available, one missed the stark forwardness of Yma's voice on earlier, mono pressings.
Unfortunately, during the many re-pressings, a number of discrepencies appeared - especially in 1963, when errors were made during the re-processing of the master for the new stereo sound. These errors have to do with the fading-out of bands typically used in popular music recordings. The finish of "Choladas" (Dance of the Moon Festival), for instance, fades before Yma's final note - a contralto low D. Also, the conclusion of "Xtabay" (Lure of the Unknown Love) is missing the final crash of a gong. Although slight omissions, in the case of "Choladas," it was not without harmonic significance. Fortunately, when Capitol decided to release the recordings on CD in 1988 and 1996, they returned to the original monophonic tape and these problems were corrected.
Voice of the Xtabay is a product of its era. It is a superb fantasy brilliantly concocted; a demonstration of inventive, exotic programming at its best. Les Baxter's arrangements are imaginative, colorful, and lushly orchestrated with ingenuity and provide a unique springboard for Yma's distinctive singing.
Of the eight songs on this recording, half were rarely used by Yma after this recording. "Accla Taqui" (originally credited to Baxter) never appeared on concert or nightclub programs. "Choladas" (Dance of the Moon Festival) was never used. "Xtabay" (Lure of the Unknown Love), also credited to Baxter, was rarely sung by Yma. "Wayra" (Dance of the Winds) was also dropped, although an orchestral piece of that title was often played on concerts.
Yma deferred to Moisés for the selection of the take used for the finished product and Moisés' choices were practically infallible. Occasionally he would consult with Hernán [Braña] whom he respected - both as a discerning musician and as a friend. Due to Yma's fresh approach, however, the first take was usually selected. As the Capitol albums prove, Moisés' decisions perfectly captured the unique quality of Yma's spontaneous singing.
Yma's voice on Voice of the Xtabay is in pristine condition. There is a straightforward, healthy concept of singing that later would become more manipulative. Although pieced together like an intricate mosaic by the Capitol engineers, Voice of the Xtabay represents Yma's talent at its most fresh and spontaneous. And different from many other artists - whose work is best experienced live, Yma's commercially-made Capitol recordings represent the best of her work.
Yma's technique in the highest register, however, does show a growing idiosyncratic dependency on a "mewling" (or hum-like) emmission, once favored by many German-trained high sopranos - a technique Yma used as early as 1943. Although manipulative, framed within her technical battery it was not an unattractive sound and fit in nicely with the atmosphere of the unusual that surrounded her voice. It wasn't until the 1970s that Yma began to seriously rely on this method. By the 1990s her entire method of singing revolved around this protective device.
Aside from this "chewing" of high notes, in 1950 Yma's technical resources were amazingly free of any distracting mannerisms and boasted coloratura pyrotechnics over a three octave range that were practically flawless. Especially well done are high staccati passages which ring with remarkable ease, brilliance and point. An obvious favorite with the Peruvian singer, this operatic device contributed great luster and elegance to her performances.
Although dated, Voice of the Xtabay is a delightful aural journey - a tribute to the colorful imagination of an unusual era in American musical entertainment. Although divided by bands, the album is actually an extended vocalise-suite, a conglomeration of Andean, European operatic coloratura, popular, jazz and worldless blues. Although seemingly an impossible, eclectic mish-mash, the result is pure magic.
Listeners new to the Sumac voice will undoubtedly experience it through this recording since it has always been the most accessible. It is a perfect introduction.
Additional notes: recorded in Hollywood, California, February, 1950 and released September, 1950. The 78 set was the first issue with the 45 rpm boxed set following shortly afterwards and the 10" LP coming in 1952.
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