Katacha Díaz is a Peruvian American writer. Wanderlust and love of travel have taken her all over the world to gather material for her stories. Her poetry and prose has been published internationally in literary journals, print and online magazines, and anthologies. Her most recent credits are: Visual Verse, The Galway Review, Ethos Literary Journal, The Pangolin Review, Sleet, Voice of Eve, Muddy River Poetry Review, Harvests of New Millennium. She lives and writes up in her perch in a quaint little historic town at the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, USA.
Nightingale of the Andes
By Katacha Díaz
Around the third day of my trip home to Peru, to see my grandmother, Mamama, and family, I was invited to the extended family Sunday luncheon at my uncle and aunt’s home in Miraflores, a suburb of Lima where I grew up. Over Pisco sour cocktails and Tomasita’s homemade empanadas, Tío Guillermo asked if there was something special I’d like to do during my summer visit. Without hesitation I told him, “Yma Sumac at El Teatro Municipal,” well aware that the concert sold-out weeks before.
“Let me see what I can do,” he smiled and excused himself to go make a few phone calls in his study. My male cousins rolled their eyes and gave each other the look; if their father, “El Doctor,” scored the tickets for the Peruvian-born diva’s concert, one of them would have to escort their gringa cousin to the theatre. It was the early 1970s, and a time of social and political unrest in Peru. Women in our family, regardless of age, did not venture out evenings unaccompanied in the affluent conclave of Miraflores, much less to a late-evening theatre concert in downtown Lima.
Naturally, the cousins teased me about my eclectic tastes in music; they had no idea what Yma Sumac meant to me. But then, my privileged upbringing and formative years spent in Miraflores were but a harmless shadow filled with wonderful memories; and so I shared with my cousins that my interest and fascination with the singer went back to childhood days when I first heard the Voice of the Xtabay, her debut album, at our grandparents’ home. When our grandfather, Papapa, was alive, musical entertainment always followed the extended family’s formal but leisurely four-hour Sunday luncheon. Since I was lucky enough to be the family’s first-born grandchild, I got to spend a lot of time with our grandparents. I was my grandfather’s helpful little assistant, a job I took very seriously, especially on Sunday’s, when I proudly stood next to him in the solarium by the phonograph cabinet and watched him finalize the record albums for our afternoon musical entertainment. Being a curious and inquisitive child, I was full of questions about the strikingly beautiful woman featured on the cover of the record album he’d entrusted to my care. “She’s an Incan princess,” my grandfather said, with a twinkle in his eye, “and a direct descendant from Atahualpa, our last Inca emperor.” Hand-in-hand we walked over to sit with my grandmother, and happily situated between them, I announced, “I want to be an Incan princess, and live in a big castle high up in the Andes Mountains….” When the music began playing, I stopped talking and found myself spellbound with the singer’s birdlike voice; reminiscent of the exotic colorful chirping birds from the Amazon that my great-aunties kept in fancy little cages in their courtyards.
Time moves on. I was in my 20s when I accidentally stumbled across Yma Sumac’s music in New York City. When I learned more about her amazing four- octaves vocal range, and her eclectic tastes in the music she recorded – Peruvian folk songs, lounge music, jazz and rock, and her vivacious stage personality, the more intrigued I became. Yma Sumac, Nightingale of the Andes, was self-taught and unabashedly original. Her singing was a mix of birdlike and eerie sounds from the musical influences in her life – birds, jungle creatures, and the winds and sounds of nature. A once well-known celebrity, the diva sold millions of records, appeared in several Hollywood movies and in a Broadway musical, and performed in sold-out concert halls and nightclubs captivating audiences in Europe and the United States. Yma Sumac came with a diverse group of international fans that included heads of state, rock musicians, opera singers, politicians, classic pop, and lounge music aficionados. Clearly, the visiting gringa cousin was in very good company and not alone in her obsession and fascination with the chanteuse.
Lunch was announced and everyone adjourned to the formal dining room where my uncle soon joined the family. Unfortunately his phone calls didn’t yield the intended results, so Tío Guillermo asked his daughter, Charo, how the romance was going between her friend and the dictator’s son. According to the latest buzz, they were still dating; so, “El Doctor” asked my cousin to call her girlfriend and inquire if the first couple was planning to attend the concert.
Everyone knew the best seat in the house at El Teatro Municipal was the Presidential Box; and when not in use by the president or the first couple, the posh box was available to immediate family and guests. And so over bites of ceviche and papas a la huancaina, Tío Guillermo nonchalantly suggested Charo and I would certainly be honored to attend diva’s concert as guests of the dictator’s young and handsome playboy son. Unsurprisingly, my male cousins were all smiles and enthusiastically favored the new plan; they would be off the hook and free to carry on with their social plans that evening.
The 1968 military coup d’etat plunged the country into dictatorship and a tight reign of left-wing military administration. Given the political climate and tense relations between anti-American coup leaders and the United States, it was not surprising that American citizen visa applications were routinely turned down, including that of Yma Sumac who became a U.S. citizen after moving to the States in 1946. Even though the Inca Princess was a well-known international personality and terrific publicity for the country, the military coup leaders would not forgive the talented singer for renouncing her Peruvian citizenship. Interestingly, at the time, the dictatorship espoused justice for the poor and indigenous people of the Amazon and the Andes. Yma Sumac was an Incan born princess from the Andes; her claim as a direct descendant of Atahualpa was formally supported in 1946 by the Peruvian government. Finally, the government relented and granted her an extended stay visa. Sadly, when Yma Sumac returned to live in Peru in 1971, the left-wing administration controlled the media outlets throughout the country and the diva was totally ignored.
At the time of my visit, now middle-aged with her popularity waning, Yma Sumac quietly drifted into semi-retirement, performing occasionally only in the States and Peru. And so, when El Teatro Municipal de Lima announced a one- night special performance, the concert tickets sold out in a matter of hours. When her disappointed fans clamored for tickets at the theatre’s box office, the police were called in to restore order and disperse the crowd.
As a young señorita growing up in Miraflores, I attended my first concert at El Teatro Municipal in the late-1950s. I have lovely memories of a music filled evening, and also of the opulent theatre’s crystal chandeliers, mirror-polished marble floors, luxurious red carpet and plush concert hall seating, the thick red velvet curtains, state-of-the-art stage lighting and acoustics. And so, on a warm summer afternoon, while I reminisced with my grandmother and Tía Luz, the phone rang; it was my cousin Charo calling with update for Yma Sumac concert tickets. It was official! We had received a formal invitation from the dictator’s son to join him and his aristocrat girlfriend in the Presidential Box. The young couple along with assigned security detail that day will pick us up at our grandmother’s house and escort us to and from the theatre that evening.
On the day of the concert, the doorbell rang and the maid showed the young couple and secret service bodyguard to the parlor. After formal introductions, Charo and I kissed Mamama good-bye and we were escorted to the waiting car. The agent in charge sat up front and while he talked into his walkie-talkie, using code names of course, to his colleagues in a parked vehicle across the street, the chauffer drove us straight to the front entrance of El Teatro Municipal in downtown Lima, where the theatre’s executive director waited to escort us to the Presidential Box.
After a short security briefing in the parlor area of the Presidential Box, we enjoyed pre-performance glasses of bubbly and gourmet treats until it was time to take our seats. Before Ms. Sumac took the stage, the spot light shined on the Presidential Box, and the dictator’s charismatic son waved to friends in the audience. Then in a surprise move, he graciously stepped aside and insisted my cousin and I sit up front to enjoy the unobstructed view. He and his girlfriend took the seats directly behind us. When the lights went down, the young couple quietly adjourned to the parlor area where they spent the better part of the evening. Charo and I remained under the watchful eyes of Peru’s secret service agents, and also the theatre goers who from time-to-time glanced up, trying to figure out who we were.
From the moment the thick, red velvet curtains were lifted at El Teatro Municipal; I was completely fascinated with the petite and exotic diva standing center stage, her long hair in thick braids, dressed superbly in traditional Indian dress and wearing lots of gold and silver jewelry befitting a Incan Princess. Yma Sumac’s ardent fans went wild, immediately jumping to their feet, clapping and whistling enthusiastically for what seemed an eternity, the first of many standing ovations during the course of what was truly a dazzling evening filled with soulful melodies. Dignified, gracious, and grateful for the opportunity to perform for the first time since her return to live in Peru, the Nightingale of the Andes dedicated the evening’s concert to her fans and the people in the land of her birth. Yma Sumac and her musicians came together for a magical evening that captured the hearts of the packed theatre.
Sixty plus years later, the Voice of the Xtabay is still my favorite of the diva’s recordings. And, oh what a joy and delight, to listen to Yma Sumac’s incredible birdlike voice, I am once again transported back in time to my grandparent’s house in Miraflores, and to a magical evening sitting spellbound in the Presidential Box, the best seat in the house, at the opulent El Teatro Municipal de Lima. The dictator’s handsome son gallant gesture did not go unnoticed then, nor has it been forgotten so many years later.
“Nightingale of the Andes” by Katacha Díaz. First published in Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal, Spring 2015.
Copyright © 2015 by Katacha Díaz.
Reprinted by permission of the author.