- The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music by Licia Fiol-Matta
The title of Licia Fiol-Matta’s latest book is at once plainly descriptive and slyly provocative. The Great Woman Singer is indeed an archive of four twentieth century singers, all of the them doubly minoritarian within the popular music canon by virtue of being Puerto Rican and female: Myrta Silva, Ruth Fernández, Ernestina Reyes (“La Calandria”), and Lucecita Benítez. Fiol-Matta thus challenges the narrowly celebratory, great men readings common to many journalistic biographies and popular cultural histories. Even so, the book’s innovation hinges not just on its focus on women performers, but also on the productive tension between the generic framework of musical biography and the author’s stated intent to defy the logic of exceptionalism. Through its critical and theoretical examination of the gendered voice, The Great Woman Singer dialogues with recent scholarship on music and sound studies, race, and gender and sexuality, both within and beyond Latin America and the Caribbean. Full of detail and insight, Fiol-Matta’s study invokes and unsettles the commonplaces of women musicking as inherently erudite refinery or intuitive, unreflective entertainment.
In the book’s introduction and over the course of the four chapters that follow, Fiol-Matta methodically develops her central critical concept, that of the “thinking voice.” The meaning of the term at first appears somewhat elusive, mostly because it refers to something elusive. The four performers in question, the author writes, enact an “unwitting outmaneuvering of celebrity culture whereby something resistant, the thinking in the voice” trains audiences “toward the intangible sense of hearing through [their] multifold performances” (173). Specifically, Fiol-Matta uses Agamben’s conceptualization of arkhé to explore how the voice in musical performance ineffably marks and moves audiences in ways that can only be revealed in the “future perfect,” presenting them “with a problem that takes its time in becoming graspable or knowable” (6–7). [End Page 1047]
Chapter one (Getting Off... the Nation) begins with a question that, at first glance, seems antithetical to Agamben’s “future perfect.” If Myrta Silva was arguably one of the biggest boricua popular music stars of the twentieth century, how and why has she been so underappreciated by critics and historians? The answer, Fiol-Matta suggests, has to do with the “patriarchal and heteronormative fantasies” of the latter, who have pruriently overlooked Silva’s multilayered complexity (18). The singer’s embodied performance took radical turns over the middle decades of the twentieth century. First, she played the ingenue, then the voluptuous bombshell, and finally the “disgustingly” overweight singer who sang guarachas with sexuality explicit lyrics, before settling on the deneutered, hemispheric voice of the bolero (22). Silva was able to transcend limitations imposed upon her over the decades by channelling the language of queer virtuosity, which foregrounded narratives of suffering and failure.
Next, Fiol-Matta pivots to the Afro-Puerto Rican singer Ruth Fernández in one of the book’s strongest chapters, “So What if She’s Black?” Fernández’s “thinking” was comprised of the strategic deployment of essentialisms drawing from “three different racial matrices: Puerto Rican, Cuban, and American,” in which local popular idioms such as plena and bomba were ultimately subsumed by middle-class universalism under the banner of pan-Americanism (90–91). Yet Fernández’s unique spin on semiclassical stylistics lent her performances something more than the “tamed vocality” of which Ana María Ochoa Gautier writes (85–86). Fernández, Fiol-Matta maintains, papered over personal and social racism by wielding the diva’s weapon of defiant transcendence. Her downplaying of systemic racial prejudice and her fabulous performance of mulatez, meanwhile, were consistent with the cultural mandates of the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD), and prefigured her own career as a Puerto Rican politician.
In chapter three (Techne and the Lady), Fiol-Matta shifts to an icon of jíbaro music: Ernestina Reyes, better known as “La Calandria.” Fiol-Matta employs a critique of biopolitics to argue that, while the...