- The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music by Licia Fiol-Matta
The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music is a brilliant intervention in Puerto Rican studies that contributes to our knowledge about Puerto Rican culture through gender, voice, and music. The book proposes itself as a "critical listening" of four divas—Myrta Silva, Ruth Fernández, Ernestina Reyes (La Calandria), and Lucecita Benítez—whose musical achievements, careers, and voices have been ignored by scholarship despite their having left an indelible mark in the sonic memories of Puerto Rican listeners both on the island and in New York. Rather than a traditional historiography of these women singers, the author offers us a lucid and elegant reflection on the intellectual, cultural, and gender labor behind the commercial success of their songs and performances, the ambivalent reception of some, and the ways in which gender and voice intersected on the stage. While the book frames these figures within the nation-building political projects of the Estado Libre Asociado, the Partido Popular Democrático, Operation Bootstrap and Operation Serenity, and the projects of modernity, urban development, progress, and citizenship from the 1950s through the 1970s, it also reflects on theorizing women singers as "the thinking voice," an analytic that responds to the "nothing" to which they have been rendered. By integrating various approaches—the psychoanalytic, readings of song lyrics as well as of album covers, the political moment and state-sponsored performances, and the analysis of the intersection of gender and voice—the author intervenes not only in expanding our understanding of these women singers and their contributions to popular music and the nation, but also in theorizing the ways in which gender and voice can reside in ambivalence rather than in resistance. [End Page 182]
The book dedicates a chapter to each singer, structuring its "critical listening" through a specific theme or theoretical issue. If Myrta Silva is rendered through a narrative about the struggles in her musical career, her interventions in singing guaracha and later composing boleros, and the ways she performed her "speaking body" (31), usually rendered androgynous and desexualized, through the obscene, the pornographic, and the analytic of disgust, she is also framed through the concept of nada, also the title of her major musical hit, and through an analysis of the temporality of her career, which ended in her television persona of Chencha and her magic ball.
Ruth Fernández, "el alma de la canción," becomes a site for critically reading race and class in Puerto Rico. As the first black female singer in Puerto Rican television, this diva successfully negotiated the gaps between the subordination of Afro–Puerto Ricans and the "generic primitivism" (originally coined by Robin Moore) of the expected sounds and rhythms of blackness as repertoire, and the self-generated discourses that allowed Ruth to be accepted and embraced as a professional artist, as a voice and body that performed good taste, and that pleased the elite social sector on the Island. Ruth's eventual turn to a political career as a senator, "the singing senator," exemplified the ways her singing career was informed and enhanced by the political machine of the Partido Popular Democrático and the goals of Operation Serenity, which deployed the artistic class as intrinsic to Puerto Rican modernity and to the figuration of the new citizen. This political analysis throughout the book is, to me, indispensable for understanding the ways in which these great women singers were meaningful to the building of the Puerto Rican nation.
The chapter on Ernestina Reyes, "La Calandria," extends the articulation between the political machine and the artistic sector in Puerto Rico. In her case, as one of a select group of women devoted to singing jíbaro music, La Calandria embodied the ways in which this particular musical tradition spoke to the affective and social needs of a displaced Puerto Rican community in New York. Her performances in the diaspora revealed...