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Ali McGregor in tribute to Yma Sumac. Image: Rich Hardcastle

Ali McGregor's tribute to a legendary Peruvian songstress

See the singer's personal collection of Yma Sumac's original jewellery

Ali McGregor
Singer, performing as 'Yma Sumac'

Ali McGregor started her career as a principal soprano with Opera Australia in 2000 before running away with the circus as a cabaret performer in La Clique. Her own shows have toured internationally to Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Melbourne Jazz Festival, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Perth Fringe Festival, Adelaide Cabaret Festival and Adelaide Fringe Festival.

She was the co-director of Adelaide Cabaret Festival Director with Eddie Perfect from 2016-17, before being named as sole Artistic Director in 2018. Part of the show's magic is in bringing the Peruvian soprano to life. Ali McGregor explains the story of how she has come to acquire clothing and jewellery owed by the original songstress herself.

I first came across Yma Sumac via a remix CD in the mid-1990s. There was a lounge music revival and Capitol Records opened up their back catalogue of kooky exotica music and let DJs remix them. I heard this sound – I didn’t know if was a human voice, an instrument or computer trickery but it was captivating. I soon found out it was this Peruvian songbird and from that moment on I was hooked.

Through her website I reached out to her former personal assistant. I started to buy a few small pieces of jewellery, a costume, some sheet music. Over the next few years we became friends ourselves and I now know so much about Yma and her life, as well as owning an almost indecent amount of her jewellery.

Yma’s is a fascinating story – one that comes with mysterious rumours of royal heritage and a personal life with as much drama as a Latin soap opera. When I first heard her voice I was a principal soprano with Opera Australia and these sounds almost frightened me. Yma Sumac is said to have a five octave range – but in reality it is a bit over four – with a higher register of whistle tone that she manages to blend seamlessly with her more operatic head voice. It seemed like contraband to me.  

After I started my foray into the darker arts of cabaret and comedy I found this whistle voice of my own, and started to sing her music slowly and with much trepidation at first. I used it as a comic device when I first started using it – comedy is always an easier way to address something serious – but singing Yma’s music is a very serious matter. Her story and her voice seems precious to me, I have so much respect for her legacy, her voice and her life story. Although I find humour in the high level of unintentional camp in her songs, I always treat them with care.

In my show I only sing songs that she herself sung and wear the jewellery she really wore. My music director Sam Keevers has painstakingly created charts from recordings and has captured the iconic Lex Baxter & Billy May arrangements.

I wear Yma’s coat in the show – I have images of her wearing it in Russia on her notorious tour of 1961 at the height of the Cold War – and in a strange but wonderful turn I often even have her support underwear on. As you can see I have become very close to this incredible, unique and legendary woman.

Festival UnWrapped is a bi-annual celebration of diverse, new and risk-taking works from some of Australia’s most admired contemporary performance makers. Originally launched in 2018, this year’s first Festival UnWrapped features five critically acclaimed works from 3 – 19 May 2019, also including photographer William Yang; dancer-choreographer Ghenoa Gela; performance artist Lara Thoms; and professional youth theatre company PYT Fairfield.

See Ali McGregor perform in Yma Sumac: The Peruvian Songbird at Festival UnWrapped on 3 & 4 May. 

Yma Sumac: The Peruvian Songbird


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