Backwash

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On the kitsch-meter, Peruvian singer Yma Sumac buries the needle deep into the red. Her intergalactic records from the 1950s and '60s offer ample evidence that the Incas really were from space. With her "Sun Virgin" persona and costumes that rivaled Parliament Funkadelic in their weirdness, she represented sublime exotica at its best. What gets lost in the schmaltz is that Sumac's also a singular musician of frightening talent. She possesses an instrument of stunning technical capacity — her voice has a four-octave range that goes from contralto to coloratura (or, without the fancy lingo, from as low as Eartha Kitt to as high as Mariah Carey). It's as though most singers have the little eight-pack of crayons, while Sumac has the full-on 64-crayon box complete with sharpener.

And that's what makes Recital, 1961 such an amazing listen. Recorded live in Bucharest, Romania, it's Sumac minus any hint of studio tricknology. It's just her, singing Peruvian folk songs and showing off purity of tone and control. It's still strange stuff, but thrilling. Even when she plays it straight, she's out there. In this concert, Sumac's backed by an orchestra conducted by her husband, Moisés Vivanco (who also wrote many of the songs). Vivanco was a musicologist and child prodigy who began composing at the age of 8, and his heady and cinematic orchestral arrangements offer Sumac's voice a suitably dramatic setting. This is also a new, remastered version of her lone live album, which has long been out of print and frequently bootlegged. It adds one previously unreleased track that wasn't on the vinyl version, and reorders the tracks to more closely mimic the order they would have been played live. These days, Sumac lives in Los Angeles and rarely performs. Last year, Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo gave her the prestigious "Orden del Sol" award, and there's nothing schmaltzy about that.

Brian J. Bowe writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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