Monday, November 3, 2008

Adios Yma

Yma Sumac is gone, and shame on you if you don't know who she was. Few singers have had her voice, her stature and yes, her chutzpah. In the postwar years (that's World War II, the big one), Ms. Sumac, a woman of doubtful ancestry and mysterious background, became one of the first women singers to sell 500,000 copies of an album. She did this thanks to a magnificent five-octave voice that would put many of today's opera stars to shame. It helped that she claimed to be the descendant of the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa. She could imitate birds and mammals of the jungle. She yipped, crooned, clicked, growled, muttered, bayed at the stars, growled at the mountains and hit an impossibly high D. She was bigger than life--much, much bigger--and left an epitaph: All Men Is Cuckoo.

She may or may not have been born in Peru, perhaps in 1922 in the Andes. Or, as some unkind critics have claimed, she may have been Amy Camus, from Brooklyn. She liked to wear massive pieces of gold and silver on stage, and she sang imperiously. In latter years, people made fun of her, but no popular singer in memory has been able to match her range. Watch her on YouTube and be amazed.

This is before special effects, dubbing, voice phasing, etc. What you hear is her voice, ready to shatter crystal...

My parents had a couple of Yma Sumac LPs. I remember hearing her on the radio in Paris, thinking no such sound could come from a human. My mom learned the cha cha listening to her records.

So good-bye, Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo, whoever you were. I'll miss you.

Here's installment 54 of Wasted Miracles.
“You gonna come up or you gonna stay down there and fry?”
Mamadou laughed. “I wanted to make sure you were home, Aunt Mim.”
The voice on the other end emitted a dry chuckle. “You ever known me not to be home? You come on up now. I’ll tell Derrick to watch that car of yours. Did you bring anything to drink?”
Mamadou lifted the jug of Gallo burgundy, waved it so it could be seen from the house.
“Well that’s good, shows you got manners.”
Mamadou left the car unlocked with the motor running. Soon a small boy, one of Aunt Mim’s distant relatives, came from the house, gave him a high five and discreetly stuck his other hand out. Mamadou slipped him a ten. The boy smiled, sauntered to the car, got in. Mamadou watched him turn the AC down a notch, saw him fiddle with the radio dials until he found a pleasing station. The speakers boomed, the boy rocked up and down, a dwarf in the limo’s seat, the entire vehicle vibrating to a dissonant rap beat. The car would be safe. Aunt Mim’s boys could put Mamadou’s Dobermans to shame.
Aunt Mim was in the bed in the upstairs room, her huge shape swaddled in pink sheets. She wore a turban of the same color. Gray hair stuck out the sides in tufts. She was smoking a king-size Pall Mall and the room was faintly hazy with smoke. Off to the side, Aunt Mim’s lover, George, sat quietly on a chair perusing an old copy of Utne Reader. He looked up when Mamadou came in, smiled slightly, looked back down.
Mamadou approached the bed, bent at the waist to kiss Aunt Mim on the cheek. He handed her the jug of wine. She looked at the label, said, “George?”
George looked up, nodded, stood and found three high-stem glasses, poured the wine carefully, handed the glasses around, returned to his reading.
Mamadou said, “You’re looking well.”
The old woman harrumphed, pleased nevertheless. “Gained another ten pounds. I look at food and it sticks to me, don’t have to eat it or nothin’, just look at it. You’re lookin’ good too. You married yet?”
Mamadou shook his head.
“Din’t think so, I’da heard. Your business still doin’ good, I’m told. You be getting richer, don’ have time to visit, forgettin’ the people that helped you...”
Mamadou shook his head again. “You know that’s not true, Aunt Mim.” He sipped from the glass. Aunt Mim drained hers, held it out to George for a refill. There was a long silence. Mamadou looked around the room.
He’d never seen Aunt Mim anywhere but in the huge bed, and George always seemed to be there, silent and attentive. The room itself hadn’t changed from the last time he’d visited a year earlier. The rosebush wallpaper was slightly more faded, the curtains, rugs, furniture, everything else was the same.
“So how you doin’?”
“I’m well, Aunt Mim.”
Aunt Mim squinted at him, sighed. “I still say a prayer every night for Amelie, don’t I, George?”
George nodded. Aunt Mim took a deep breath. “That was such a shame, young woman like that. Hope those boys are rottin’ in hell. They needed killin’. But thass what happens when the drugs getcha. Ain’t nothin’ good to be deerived from all that stuff. An’ it’s gettin’ worse and worse, thass what people tell me.”
Mamadou smiled, sipped. “People tell you everything, don’t they, Aunt Mim? You know what they’d call you in French? They’d call you the doyenne.”
The woman looked at him, laughed uproariously. The bed shook. “The dwayen? You still a sweet-talkin’ man, ain’tcha? Ain’t he, George? I like that word, dwayen. Sounds kinda African, though, not French.” She drank from her glass and her expression changed. “Damn straight! They tell me everythin’. I won’t tolerate no secrets. That’s how I knew that boy took your sister, ‘cause people came and told me. And that’s why I asked George here to pay you a visit.” She nodded in the direction of the elderly man who did not look up, took a deep sip of whine. Wasn’t hard gettin’ those boys to come to you. Hell, I knew that boy that hurt Amelie since he was little, knew his family, too. None of ‘em were any good. Ida been smart, I mighta could’ve prevented what happen to your sister, but I didn’t see it comin’, you know. I was gettin’ old, even back then.”
She made a show of sitting up in the bed, folded her hands on the coverlet. “So, what is it I can help you with this time?”
Mamadou told her. She listened silently, broke in only once, said, “AA? They tried settin’ up a AA meetin’ here once. I let ‘em use my kitchen, but it didn’t last. Most black people, men, they don’ wanta talk about their drinkin’ They just want to do it. Or ifn they do talk, they boast, like it was somethin’ to be proud of. Ain’t that right George?”
Mamadou listened to Aunt Mim for an hour as she recounted births, deaths, marriages, abandonments. Before he left, he wrote the word doyenne on a piece of paper, handed it to her. Aunt Mim looked at it, spelled it out loud a couple of times. Mamadou said, “It means a great lady, one who’s kind and helps people. A patron. A leader.”
George spoke for the first time. “It also means the senior member, as in age or rank, of a group, class or profession, etc. Webster’s Unabridged. Page 431.”
Aunt Mim nodded her head, unimpressed with George’s scholarship. “Thass a pretty word, ain’t it George? Yeah. I kinda like that, bein’ a dwayen. Gotta good ring to it. Maybe I’ll get one of the girls to embroider a pillow for me, have it say, ‘Mimosa Bell, dwayen of all she surveys.’ That’d be right, wouldn’t it?”
Mamadou put his glass down, took one of her heavy hands in both of his, kissed it. “That would be absolutely right, Aunt Mim. A proper and fitting title.”
Aunt Mim giggled. “Such a sweet talker, ain’t he George?”

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