- The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music by Licia Fiol-Matta
This deeply researched and thoughtful book considers several iconic Puerto Rican singers of the twentieth century: Myrta Silva, Ruth Fernández, Ernestina Reyes, and Lucecita Benítez. As might [End Page 132] be expected in any critical biography, Licia Fiol-Matta explores the lives, music, and influence of each artist within the complicated context of Puerto Rico's colonial modernity, paying special attention to the ways that gender, sexuality, race, and class affected these pop stars. At that, one could argue, this book would be a significant contribution. Uncovering significant but overlooked female pop artists is a difficult but worthy task, and the history of Latin American popular music suffers a relative lack of feminist and queer scholarship. But Fiol-Matta goes beyond this. In a consistent and compelling argument buttressed by a wealth of archival evidence, she aims to dismantle the very concept of the "great woman singer" by defending the singularity of each of these four vocalists, proposing new ways of listening to their voices, and establishing a place for the story of their artistry and their musical, cultural, and political labor.
By the 1940s, Puerto Rican singer Myrta Silva was a best-selling artist on RCA Victor, occupying an unprecedented triple role as percussionist, singer, and bandleader. In the 1960s, she found transnational success hosting television shows both in Puerto Rico and later in New York. Her racy, humorous repertoire and reputation as a lesbian meant she battled state censorship and remained "under constant examination for deviance" (p. 55). The subject of the first chapter of this book, Silva's long career is read through both her performative alter egos and the self-negation she embraced with one of her signature songs, "Nada." This concept of oblivion or "nothing" becomes a theme throughout the book, a part of Fiol-Matta's framework for understanding the four divas through what she calls their shared "philosophical protestation, 'I am nothing'" (p. 15).
Ruth Fernández was a pioneer in Puerto Rican music from the 1930s to the 1950s as the first female lead of an orchestra. Fernández was a contralto—an unusually low register in pop music—who emulated classical styles, cultivated herself as a symbol of Puerto Rican modernity, and later became a senator. She was Afro-Puerto Rican to boot, and the second chapter of this book, "So What If She's Black," looks at how race shaped her reception and image and the way in which the artist herself framed her cultural ascendance vis-à-vis the agenda of Puerto Rico's Popular Democratic Party. Fiol-Matta in this chapter challenges what she calls the standard versions of Fernández's career that paint her as "a heroic figure within a middle-class ethos, espoused by a heavily white and light-skinned, elite group and funneled to the rest of the population via the state's cultural arm" (p. 71).
Ernestina Reyes ("La Calandria"), iconic singer and the subject of chapter 3, was the rare feminine voice of jíbaro music, associated with authentic Puerto Rican culture and thus a potent symbol of national identification for the diaspora. Like Fernández, she was symbolically rich as an authentic Puerto Rican voice and participated in state-sponsored films and goodwill tours. The chapter puts gender at the center of its discussion of La Calandria's musical idiom of jíbaro, which was appropriated, Fiol-Matta argues, by the state (the recently formed Commonwealth of Puerto Rico) as the melancholic, folkloric expression of Puerto Rican migrants.
The main figure around whom the book's introduction and fourth chapter revolves is Lucecita Benítez. Dubbed the "National Voice of Puerto Rico" in the 1990s (p. 3), Benítez is Fiol-Matta's exemplar of the "nothingness" she identifies in all four artists. She...