Review and Analysis of Mambo! by Nicholas E. Limansky
From Yma Sumac - The Art Behind the Legend
used with permission - all rights reserved, © Nicholas E. Limansky
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Mambo! was originally released as a 10" LP of eight selections. Excerpts were also issued in the 45 rpm format. The cover boasted an unusual action photograph of Yma in the midst of dance. Although twelve songs were originally recorded, one remained unissued (a limp effort, it was no great loss), and the other three were held in the Capitol vaults and not issued until the recording was re-released onto 12" LP in 1956. After being out of print for 15 years, it was re-released on LP by Capitol in 1979, but without "Cha Cha Gitano." By 1989 and the death of the Long Playing vinyl record, it had again gone out of print.
In early 1994, EMI References, imported CDs from France, began to surface in stores in New York. Volume I included Voice of the Xtabay and part of Mambo!, and Volume two completed the rest of the Mambo selections and all of Legend of the Jivaro. Finally, in 1996, after contractural agreements with Yma Sumac had been agreed upon, Mambo! was released on CD as part of the "Right Stuff" series. All selections were included.
Mambo! is an important Sumac recording and is one of the most impressive albums Yma ever released. Because of her instrumental capabilities, this particular format was the perfect framework for Yma's gifts and she provides the listener with some remarkable singing. Add to this Billy May's expertly-crafted compositions and you have an unusual treat.
Actually, the entire recording is one huge vocalise. Fortunately, Yma's voice was closely miked on these selections, the Capitol engineers forgoing echo or reverberating devices so that the listener can concentrate on the natural cutting edge of Yma's voice, her pure, floated high notes and aspiration-less coloratura flights. Like Voice of the Xtabay it is an exciting disc that bears up very well to repeated hearings. It is also one of Yma's most intriguing records since each selection offers glimpses into Yma's wordless interpretive art: sometimes sensual, sometimes vulgar, sometimes elegant ,and sometimes definitely operatic; her voice is used purely as an instrument. Words (as well as vowels and consonants) are inconsequential and used only to lend color and accentuation to various notes and rhythmn. This innovative concept provides the listener with an unusually wide spectrum of colors and effects to experience.
When first hearing this record, the general reaction is surprise that a single voice is capable of all the acrobatics displayed. Indeed, this is a veritable feast of coloratura singing. In some of the rapid, operatic coloratura on this disc, Yma surpasses the efforts of her classical, operatically-trained sisters. But Yma was always at her best, and most inventive, when allowed complete freedom to "play" as her whims dictated.
It should be stated, however, that Mambo! is a definite product of the 1950s and in that respect, is dated. The harmonic structure of the arrangements and the heavy use of brass could not have originated at any other period in American musical history. Because of this many listeners consider the recording high camp. Not helping this is the odd juxtaposition of Yma's coloratura over a dance band. Oddly, the Mambo as a dance form, had all but disappeared by the time Yma came to record these selections, replaced by the "Cha-Cha-Cha", a slower version of the same dance.
Titles for the songs were obviously chosen arbitrarily, and like those for the later, 1971 disc, Miracles were only meant to supply exotic flavor - since they mean absolutely nothing. No notes were created for the Mambo album, just vapid comments about the Mambo dance form and Yma Sumac.
Although the music itself is not exotic, the concept of using Yma's voice (and what she does with it) is definitely not of the norm. Perhaps because of this and the remarkably fresh tang to her voice and improvisations, the album remains a truly unique listening experience.
Yma's range in these songs covers almost three and one-half octaves, from low, contralto D to the coloratura soprano F.
Although almost all of Mambo! is worth many repeated hearings, 6 of the original 11 songs are spectacular for Yma's vocalism and rank with the best work she put to disc: "Bo Mambo", "Taki Rari", "Gopher Mambo", "Chicken Talk", "Malambo #1" and "Jungla".
Additional notes: recorded in Hollywood, California August-September 1954 and released February 1955. The 12" LP followed shortly afterwards with additional tracks from the same session.
Select song title to read a review of the individual song and to see a listing of releases which contain it.