The Ultimate Diva: Yma Sumac
By Suzanne Pestana
My very first memory of her was hearing a song of hers on television circa 1998. It was used in a performance number on the Cirque du Soleil show "Quidam". I remember they played the show in heavy rotation on the cable television channel "Bravo" so it wasn't hard to miss. I was so obsessed with hearing this particular song that I memorized what part of the show it was played and would try to cue in just to watch that particular part of the show. It took me a couple different Google searches but I was finally able to narrow down my search and found that the song was "Gopher Mambo" and was performed by the amazing singer Yma Sumac; a Peruvian songbird who had captured the world with her amazing four octave layered exotic voice. She worked with the likes of Billy May, Les Baxter and was very influential in the exotic lounge music genre most popular in the 1950's and 1960's. Sadly Yma passed away in 2008 at the age of 86. I'm sad I never had the chance to experience her music live (even missing her next to last performance at the House of Blues in Hollywood) but I am happy her voice was brought into my life.
My record collection grew quite heavily and quickly with the recent purchase of my very first record player. The first artist I seeked to own was Yma Sumac. "The Legend of Jivaro" was my first find. I hope to add many more of her albums to my collection in the future. One day I was doing a random search of her on eBay and came across a purse that was being sold that once belonged to Yma. It blew my mind that I might actually have the opportunity to own something that once belonged to her. It took me a few tries at bidding but I was finally the owner of a piece of fashionable history that was once owned by Yma. Below are my winning eBay item; a silver handbag and matching gloves.
I had some contact with the seller because to be honest, I couldn't believe I was being given the opportunity to buy these items. I e-mailed the seller asking them a few questions and found out that the seller was Damon Devine, who had been Yma's makeup man and personal assistant beginning in 2004 up to her death in 2008. I was honored to be communicating with someone who had been so close to her in her remaining years and knew I couldn't pass on the chance to interview him. Below are the results:
Suz: When and how did you come about working for Mrs. Sumac?
Damon: I saw her by accident in 1996 in Buena Park one day and thought she was a very exotic looking older lady. I was not a fan despite many people my own age (in my 20's at the time) trying to convince me she was the greatest. But after meeting her, she was so nice (in public!) that I became a serious collector and fan after that. After three or four times of seeing her at awards shows (for her) and a concert, I tracked her down determined to befriend her. She was VERY different behind closed doors. Very strong, cautious and demanding. She did not mellow out and we did not bond as human beings until about 2005. It was an unbreakable bond after that. We had a difficult friendship from 1996 to until about 2004, when I began to work with her on a professional level.
Suz: Were you a fan of hers before you began working for her?
Damon: Yes, and a friend. By 2004, when she began to do things professionally again, I was her makeup man (the only other person to do it in her entire life, so specific was she about her personal makeup preferences), personal assistant, secretary, confidant and eventual webmaster (the next year).
Suz: Did you get to experience her voice in performance and if so did you have a favorite song or performance?
Damon: I saw her next to last performance ever. It was at House of Blues in Hollywood. The audience was totally hysterical for her and about every age and race you can imagine. She was temperamental (well known) and chastised her musicians right there on stage. Come to find out, she did this often. She was used to huge 122 piece orchestras, not a "band" per se, and was long divorced from her conductor husband by 1996. In concert, by the 80's and 90's, she chose to sing mostly her own compositions, which were in English (her version of it!) and they were not recorded that we knew of at the time. I have since located 5 of them, all in studio, and released them as "Yma Sumac: The Final Recordings." Taita Inty (Hymn to the Sun God) was my favorite, but at the age of 74, that would be an impossibility to sing. Her voice was still astonishing though, but coloratura is a very delicate thing and does not last long.
Suz: Mrs. Sumac was and still is a much admired Diva who had a vast collection of gorgeous gowns which she wore both on and off stage. Do you have a favorite? Who was the designer? Did she have a favorite?
Damon: I do have a favorite, and it's from a photo session for her album 'Miracles'. I own the entire outfit. I also have her beloved cape she wore throughout her Russian tour. Most all of her nicer things were custom made for her. She had extraordinary money and fashion sense and stood above the dress makers giving strict instructions. Her favorite, did not last the decades and it was a huge blue and green taffeta gown with peacock feathers all over it and a headdress to match. The headdress, has survived the passing decades, interestingly enough.
Suz: You were greatly bestowed some of her prized possessions in her passing and have in the last year posted a few of those items on eBay. Were there any items you were reluctant to put up for sale but still did so? What was or were these pieces?
Damon: Oh yes! The Russian head wrap with pearl edges about killed me to give up! It went to a buyer in NY who I know fairly well, and he was one of the few trustworthy people that knew her in real life and was not an opportunist. A massive cherished vintage oil painting also went recently to an adoring home here in California. She never got around to a will, you see, so by California law, her money all went to her [considerably estranged] "next of kin." Not a cent came to me. Eventually, all of her personal belongings came to me. I would have rather had these things as her archivist and as someone who loved her like a grandmother. I know her entire history and have photos to match most of these items, so they were much better off with me. What did not go to special fans, has gone to people all over the world and been brought back to life again. That would have pleased her greatly. She would have been mortified to know I ended up penniless after her passing, so I am sure she would be overjoyed to know at last, I live well, and was able to bring a little joy around the world too. She was very much considered a mystery, so these things are precious to own.
Suz : You have also mentioned that the auctions are drawing to a close. Is this permanent or do you intend to put more items up in the future?
Damon: The clothing is coming to an end soon. While she had a MASSIVE storage of 60 years worth of stuff...we must face it will eventually come to an end. There is much jewelry left. Her famous Inca jewels I am not sure I can part with. They are VERY dear, to her, to fans, history and myself. I looked into museums and they were all shysters. Every single one of them. So the Inca jewels remain with me.
Suz: If you had one day or moment to relive with Mrs. Sumac, what would that be?
It was one day were got caught in a rain storm (rare for Hollywood). We were returning from a nearby store and it started to pour. Neither of us were prepared, so we grabbed each other's arm and walked briskly, dripping wet. I have a sort of rock persona (tattoos, leather studded bracelets, etc) and was 50 years younger than her, and the image of an older lady (in huge sun glasses and giant straw hat) arm in arm with an very caring 'alternative looking' young guy, dodging flooded gutters with her, caused onlookers to applaud! That and the rare night she went out on the town hoping to go unnoticed and INSTANTLY when we arrived inside a restaurant, a very young Rockabilly girl yells out "oh my GOD! Yma Sumac!" It was so funny.
Damon runs a website dedicated to keeping Yma's memory alive. Please be sure to visit it at http://yma-sumac.com/ and the newly added Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Yma-Sumac-The-Final-Recordings/134325763292798. You can also find her eBay listings under "Yma Sumac owned" weekly. Be sure to check it out for listings to be posted soon.