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  • The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music by Licia Fiol-Matta
  • Jessica C. Hajek (bio)
The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music. By Licia Fiol-Matta. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017. 312 pp.

What is a “great woman singer”? A closer inspection of this question, which is rather syntactically simple on the surface, exposes the discursive possibilities of using “woman” as a qualifier beyond the initial act of including musical women in the historical narrative. In dialogue with Ruth Glasser’s seminal My Music Is My Flag, Licia Fiol-Matta provides an in-depth investigation of Puerto Rican music during the twentieth century by focusing on female pop singers. As a field of inquiry, the music of Puerto Rico sits at the inter-section of both contemporary Latin American and American postcolonial studies. Fiol-Matta, who grew up in a musical family and is a self-confessed fan of some of the artists she discusses, guides her readers through cityscapes from San Juan to New York City and the soundscapes of country, rock, and even light opera to “unsettle protocols of listening and challenge the distribution of the sensible that kept—and possibly still keep—a whole class of subjects on the outside it demarcates” (231).

Using archival and ethnographic research methods and an array of materials, including album covers, photographs, song lyrics, audio recordings, and video recordings, this work establishes “an archive of the voice” of four marquee artists of Puerto Rican popular music: Myrta Silva, Ruth Fernández, Ernestina Reyes, and Lucecita Benítez (7). Fiol-Matta undertook much of her essential archival research at the Díaz-Ayala Latin American Popular Music Collection at Florida International University (Miami) and the Puerto Rican Collection (Colección Puertorriqueña) at the University of Puerto Rico (Recinto de Río Piedras). She further supplemented her archival work with a decade’s worth of formal and informal interviews, including one with Ruth Fernández before her passing in 2012. The result is an elegantly written text that obliges readers to confront the social, historical, and ideological forces that helped produce these artists as “great women singers.”

Fiol-Matta brings her book’s purported subject, the great woman singer, to bear as a way “to disrupt the normative business of scholarly studies on women [End Page 212] artists” (4). This means, first and foremost, that this book is not a survey of Puerto Rican women in music. Moreover, and perhaps more radically, the author actively seeks to avoid an analysis that theorizes any inherent beauty in female voices or demonstrates what is “feminist” about these particular women singers. Instead, the book is a critical biography that interprets but never judges the career choices of the four singers selected for study. Thus, the information presented in this book goes above and beyond that which one may find in a general reference book (such as the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography).1 Rather, much like Karen Bishop-Sanchez’s recent work on Carmen Miranda, the goal of this book is not to tell a “true history” but to blend a seamless analysis of both media representation(s) and the personal mythologies of these artists to question the very ideology of the great woman singer (69).2

In creating this critical biography, Fiol-Matta has applied her skills as a listener to focus on these individuals as “social subjects,” simultaneously addressing a lacuna of sources on gender and voice in our understanding of Puerto Rican music while also probing the sexist nature of those materials that do exist. In other words, Fiol-Matta poses questions about the intersections of gender, race, class, political persuasion, and/or sexuality to highlight both the “problems of omission” and the “politics of memory” (7). For instance, in chapter 1, Fiol-Matta broaches the subject of Myrta Silva’s lesbian sexuality only to redirect the reader’s attention to how the media and audience members questioned Silva’s “national allegiances” because of her nonnormative presentation as an unmarried and fat yet sexual body (17–18). This approach helps the author achieve one of the fundamental...


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pp. 212-217
Launched on MUSE
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