What a welcome the packed audience gave to Ali McGregor when she stepped out on stage to tell the story of Yma Sumac at the Dunstan Playhouse! The joyous welcome was equalled by the standing ovation she received at the end by her ecstatic admirers. It wasn’t just that she told the story with simplicity, passion, humour and clarity but, of course, her singing a la Peruvian Songbird was astonishing. I have heard nothing to match her apart from Yma herself on record. She covered over four octaves: Yma said five. It went from almost a growl in the low register to the astounding highest sweet soprano note – and with such power!
Ali started by saying, “I want to share a love story with you.” It is Ali’s love story for this strikingly handsome woman whose success at the height of her career was enormous. It culminated in her buying a great deal of Yma’s big, heavy jewellery which she said are multi faceted, they shine effortlessly, like their erstwhile owner and, like her, “they just don’t make them like that any more”. Ali wore some of it throughout the show – and copied some costumes. When she had a box of her stuff sent over from America, not knowing the contents, she found she had bought Yma’s day to day clothes and all sorts of interesting bits and pieces. Ali set about finding out everything she could about her and building her show around the woman she admired so much – with much success.
Yma’s life was full of ups and downs. She met guitarist Moises Vivianco d’Allende in 1938 when she was 16 and they were married four years later, were divorced, remarried and divorced again. Ali called him Svengali Moises. He had more than a roving eye and fathered three children, not Yma’s, while they were married. She brought one up, Charley, as her own, only to have him taken away by Moises when they finally split up. In 1946 they moved to the United States and performed in humble venues until someone from Capitol Records heard her and was bowled over. She was an overnight success and continued performing until the 60s. This woman earned the respect of the public for her single-minded determination to bring to them Peruvian music, of which they had heard none previously. She wrote much of what she sang and Moises collected the royalties. Her astonishing voice (along with that thrilling tongue rolling sound, the name of which I don’t know) was heard on radio, on television and on screen. Her persona as a mysterious Incan princess descended from Atahualpa, the last Incan Emperor, grew especially after the Peruvian Government verified the veracity of that story. She toured with her music and that stunning voice including a 6 months tour of Russia. She came to Australia in 1968 and performed in Sydney with a support act by Don Lane.
Ali showed a most interesting old film clip of an ageing Yma announcing on stage that she would sing a lullaby. As she started to sing in a muted way, a woman laughed. Yma took umbrage and said she wouldn’t sing. And she didn’t!
Ali looked superb in the costumes she wore and the beautiful head pieces. She was supported by a 6 piece band conducted by Sam Keevers; Moises was played by Mikelangelo, her cousin, Cholita Rivera by Lily Paskas and the Director was Cameron Menzies. It was a lovely show. It was authentic and as close as we’re ever going to get to Yma and her wonderful voice due to the hard work and talent of Ali McGregor.
2018 Adelaide Cabaret Festival
by Ali McGregor
Director Cameron Menzies
Venue: Dunstan Playhouse | Adelaide Festival Centre
Dates: 14 – 16 June 2018