The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music by Licia Fiol-Matta offers a luminous account of the careers and voices of four Puerto Rican singers: Myrta Silva, Ruth Fernandez, Ernestina “La Calandria” Reyes, and Lucecita Benitez. Each chapter constitutes a “critical biography” of one of these performers, in which the author explores the singularity of their vocality: “I aim to really listen to women's voices, in the sense of paying attention to their conceptual dimension, away from notions of natural or intuitive performance” (4). Gender and voice are thus central to this study, as well as the “nothing” which these dynamics of performance reveal. Fiol-Matta is interested in the “nothing” as a space that conjures refusal, that elicits abjection. It may be a void a singer decides to inhabit, rather than be legible to the violence of heteronormativity or celebrity, or it may be a space to which they have been relegated, a space they transform into being through what the author calls the thinking voice. In theorizing this concept she primarily but not exclusively engages a psychoanalytic theoretical framework, most notably deploying Lacanian thought. Her project enriches a growing and fascinating corpus of research in sound studies and the vocal1. In her listening and writing, Fiol-Matta also tunes the reader into twentieth-century Puerto Rican institutions and events that informed the singers' artistic choices, including the Estado Libre Asociado, or Associated Free State of Puerto Rico (ELA, the official designation of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico established in 1952), the Cold War, and mass migration.
Far from being a recovery project or a championing of the “feminine,” The Great Woman Singer troubles the narrative that apprehends life stories, tragic or otherwise, to explain the musical. It also presents these singers beyond the rubric of the “great” to which many women are assigned in gendered subordination—indeed, the title is an ironic gesture. Her scrutiny of these singers' vocality introduces an original concept, the thinking voice, “an event that can be apprehended through but is not restricted to music performance. It exceeds notation, musicianship, and fandom, although it partakes of them all” (172). This voice is nothing one has; it is an episode one deploys in space and time. Each of these singers invoke it.
The book begins and ends with a discussion of singer Lucecita Benitez, a music phenomenon who came of age in 1960s Puerto Rico, when the island was involved in a vertiginous modernization project. In 1969, Lucecita won the First Festival of Latin Song in the World with the song “Génesis.” Fiol-Matta shows how this early performance in her career was already a revelation that troubled paradigms. Lucecita projected an indomitable voice and a sleek, mannish presentation, with lyrics illustrating typically masculine domains: power, war, reconstruction. Amid Cold War tensions, “Génesis” suggested the prospect of annihilated life on earth. Lucecita thus captured the uneasy affective landscape of the 1960s and '70s, striking a chord with a tremendous voice. In Fiol-Matta's own words, “‘Génesis’ expressed extreme male melancholy, yet a masculine woman unexpectedly delivered this affect home” (2). Lucecita's thinking voice, a sound that orients to thought, erupted at the same time her status as celebrity began. The thinking voice is an exercise that defies the culture of celebrity, and yet both intersected in Lucecita's singing project. Her thinking voice carried the potential to be “world transforming,” as her outstanding singing capacity (beyond most or all fellow pop singers) and her queer visual presentation troubled celebrities' strictures, particularly those that subverted a substantial listening exercise of thought.
Following the introduction, the first chapter is dedicated to Myrta Silva, active between the 1940s and the '70s, a musician of dazzling versatility remembered merely as vulgar and suspect. Throughout her career, she was bandleader, television show host, songwriter, and producer, not to mention her labor as a singer of great dexterity, impeccable timing and improvisational genius. Yet the lasting memory was of her portrayal of “Chencha,” a gossipy, abject character featured on television.
Fiol-Matta excavates Silva's archive to reveal the performative power and “conceptual depth” Silva wielded from the beginning of her career. Notably, Silva exerted her voice as an offensive against societal hypocrisy, deploying a brilliant performance of negation. “Nada” (Nothing), Silva's signature song, is an example of her operation of this thinking voice. Once she was no longer the artist of heteronormative fantasy she portrayed in her youth (when she pushed the envelope performing a repertoire of provocative double-entendres), the song could refer to the fed-up attitude of the song's character and her complaints about married life. But there is also a nothingness that Silva conjures, a refusal to occupy the space that pleases others, a “singing back” against the murmurs and gossip regarding her queer sexuality and gender non-conforming appearance. In doing so, she practices what the author, combining Foucault and Lacan, calls a cynical ethics, part of her call to thinking, to call attention not to her “vulgarity” but the hypocrisy of society.
The voice of Ruth Fernandez, the first black star in Puerto Rican music, invites a consideration of race and more specifically, blackness. Considered “El Alma de Puerto Rico hecha Cancion” (The soul of Puerto Rican song), she sang in a range of pop music genres. This diva was most active from the 1940s to the '60s, constantly traveling to New York for performances and diligently constructing a persona of great distinction and refinement in her voice and dress. Her thinking voice projected a question that emerged in any discussion about her encounters with prejudice, “So what if I'm black?” Her un-ironic performance of good taste and respectability was a technique of negotiation in a climate where racism prevailed. Her self-generated discourse of rising against obstacles and reaching stardom was convenient to the ELA, which sought to project a modern image of a Puerto Rico free from racial strife. Many of her signature songs sustained a racial/racist imaginary, albeit spectacularly, visually and vocally. Even as she sang verses with racist implications, she had the last word in how to deploy them in her voice. The tension remains, however, in a Fernandez who sought to uplift Puerto Rico through song and, toward the end of her life, in politics.
Ernestina “La Calandria” (The Mockingbird) Reyes was a country music star, often framed as the greatest of jíbaro (peasant, country-dweller) female singers. Fiol-Matta's exploration of her career, from the 1940s and the '70s, undoes the logic that lies beneath this seemingly benevolent designation. This chapter entails a crucial inquiry of the jíbaro genre and its gender politics, disrupting the dominant narrative about the countryside and the people, sounds and affects associated with el campo as doleful and melancholy. The ELA conceived of the jíbaro as a national myth, a useful image to the project of modernization, one that needed to change and “modernize,” but one whose “wisdom” had to be preserved. It is the sound of the jíbaro, Fiol-Matta suggests, that projects like the ELA apprehended to convey and preserve the essence of the people during volatile modernization. In this context, the voice of Calandria erupts and troubles the “nothingness” the jíbaro and, especially, the jíbara occupy. Calandria, far from singing from a natural, ancestral source, employed skilled vocal techniques to convey the “bucolic” jíbaro imaginary with raspy, shrill or nasal tones. By no means the suffering embodiment of jíbaro melancholy, Calandria was a technically gifted singer whose thinking voice illuminates the jíbaro music not as timeless or ancestral, but contemporary, relevant, and sardonic.
Licia Fiol-Matta has written a marvelous exploration of the voice. In the process, she assembles a vocal archive of Puerto Rican performers whose labor is usually relegated to footnotes or cursory mentions. She demonstrates the ways these singers worked through, with and against the nothingness they were assigned. The implications of this work in the study of gender and voice are exciting. In one instance, the thinking voice dismantles the widespread tendency to posit women in popular music as representative of something else, as vacuous songbirds of entertainment. Perhaps more importantly, the concept may also be applied to, in the author's own words, “nonmusical celebrity contexts where performance, voice and embodiment are key” (173). Finally, The Great Woman Singer deploys a cynical ethics itself, a presentation and rejection of an ideology that Fiol-Matta undoes scrupulously throughout the text. It is a placeholder, indeed, for a nothing where she invites us to hear something.