The Great Woman Singer: gender and voice in Puerto Rican music | Summer Kim Lee (27.3)

The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music, by Licia Fiol-Matta, Durham,  Duke  University  Press,  2017,  312  pp.,  US$25.95  (paperback),  ISBN 9780822362937; US$95.95 (cloth), ISBN 9780822362821

          Something resonates and pulses throughout Licia Fiol-Matta’s The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music. In the introduction, Fiol-Matta riffs off of Puerto Rican singer Lucecita Benítez’s 1969 performance of the song “Génesis,” which tells of the earth at both its end and beginning, to write that this something is “nothing.” It is the “absolute nothing of dissolution, of ceasing to be [...] [that] gave way to the relative nothing that the singer claimed for herself, when she informed the public that it could not dictate what she was” (3). That year, Benítez’s performance of “Génesis” won the First Festival of Latin Song in the World, a commendation that enfolds Benítez and her voice into historical narratives of Puerto Rico—and Latin America more broadly—at the height of the Cold War. Yet, as Fiol-Matta points out, Benítez’s insistence that “I am nothing” renders her as something other than a feminized representative of the nation and of ethnic difference—she signals “not legibility, but potentiality” (3). Her performance marks and inhabits the sonic horizon of this potentiality, wherein her voice disrupts historical and cultural narratives of the nation, which would tether her to “the pedagogical imperative to represent what national music should: respectability, accomplishment, values, and triumph” (14–15).
          In her book, Fiol-Matta listens and attunes us to the voices of Puerto Rican singers Lucecita Benítez, Myrta Silva, Ruth Fernández, and Ernestina Reyes or “La Calandria.” Their voices become the site through which the potentiality of the phrase “I am nothing” emerges, disrupts, and negotiates the gendered writing and masculinized discourses of the nation, but also of music criticism. Fiol-Matta’s attention to the gendering and racialization of the voice in Puerto Rican popular music makes crucial interventions within Latin American and Caribbean studies, which would overlook these women artists. Centering her book on women’s voices in popular music furthermore offers a necessary feminist performance-studies critique of the ways sound studies renders the voice as problematically feminine: too sensuous and moored to the body, too much in the way of a supposed conceptual purity of sound and the masculine mastery of it.1
          Fiol-Matta’s textured descriptions of these singers’ performances are enmeshed with the book’s broader questions of how the voice produces thought, or what Fiol-Matta calls the “thinking voice.” For Fiol-Matta, the thinking voice is irreducible to the rigid structures of musical pedagogy and notation, but also to notions of liveness that would treat the voice as natural and spontaneous. Instead, the thinking voice is what Jacques Lacan calls the “part object” constituted by a “puzzling absence” that undermines “accounts of the voice as always already knowable, as certain” (9). Through these four singers, Fiol-Matta pursues the elusive event of the thinking voice as it produces, alters, and critiques gendered ideological structures of the nation (3).
          The chapters trace each singer’s critical biography, following the trajectory of their careers formed through and against the shifting historical, political, and cultural landscape of Puerto Rico, Latin America, and the Caribbean throughout the twentieth century. For Fiol-Matta, critical biography is necessary to produce alternative “archive[s] of the voice,” and with care, she constructs this archive out of biographical writings, interviews, album artwork, and recordings, as well as footage of live and recorded performances (7). In this, she cultivates what Alexandra T. Vazquez (2013) calls “listening in detail,” a practice that does not purport to fully know or contain the voice, but instead approaches it as partially unknowable. Taking up the psychoanalytic practice described by Freud as “distracted” or “wavering” listening, Fiol-Matta constructs a mode of suspended receptivity wherein “the sense of a discourse is not a given to be deciphered, but must be constructed conjointly by the one who utters it and by the one who listens to it” (9). Throughout the book, Fiol-Matta invites us into this conjoined and open-ended listening practice.
          The first chapter addresses singer, composer, and television producer Myrta Silva’s transformation from the young sexualized guaracha singer appealing to U.S. desires for “ethnic music,” to “the worldly sexual bombshell” with artistic independence, to the “disgusting object” (25), whose sexuality and cultural influence were deemed age-inappropriate (22). While accounts of Silva’s career often read the deterioration of her aging voice and body as a sign of her desexualization, Fiol-Matta argues that to read her excessively bodied performances as desexualized overlooks her queerness, the cultivation of her perso- nas, and her vocal style and percussive performance of parlando, which creatively blurs speech and song, notation and improvisation. Silva’s thinking voice “exploited lyrics,” playing with the fixity of signifiers and language, and therefore with desire (29). In response to her critics: “Silva retorted, ‘I’ve done pretty well with my lousy voice’” (19). Here, she speaks to the conceptual work her voice does, wherein lousiness shapes a “virtuosic performance of negativity” (30). Echoing the work of José Esteban Muñoz on queer failure, Fiol-Matta writes that Silva’s performance becomes “queer virtuosity as a perspicacious staging of presumptive artistic failure” (30).
          In the second chapter, Fiol-Matta turns to singer Ruth Fernández and her public self-narration as a singer expected to embody and voice blackness. To Fiol-Matta, both Fernández’s and music critics’ descriptions of her voice as “different” and “grave” are fraught with correlations made between the visuality of her blackness, the lowness of her contralto voice read as masculine, and Puerto Rico's changing racial regimes in the transition from a Spanish to a U.S. colony (68–69). Fernández’s success and visibility would come to represent the “racial harmony”—central to Puerto Rico’s cultural nationalism aligned with the rise of the Popular Democratic Party (Partido Popular Democrático, PPD) and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (Estado Libre Asociado, ELA) in the 1950s—that in fact obscured structures of institutionalized racism (116). Yet, Fiol-Matta does not read her career as wholly subsumed by this narrative of complicity, but instead listens to how Fernández’s articulations and performances of blackness emerge from her own experiences of racism. The narratives she constructed around her voice contributed to the formation and inclusion of a“respectable” Afro-Puerto Rican identity, however her personal stories of hardship offer critiques of state-sanctioned racism, and speak to the ambivalent role of blackness within the nation’s image of itself.
          Fiol-Matta writes that while the Afro-Puerto Rican subject represented “the descendant of slaves faded away as a relic of the past,” the jíbaro—or "Puerto Rican peasant”—represented the nation’s successful modernization and simultaneous melancholic longing for a countryside left behind (125). The third chapter traces the career of Ernestina Reyes—“La Calandria”—who gave voice to the jíbara/o. As “the first woman música campesina” (121), or country music singer, she gained stardom at the same time as the establishment of the ELA, which used jíbaro music in its campaigns to valorize the “Puerto Rican peasant and the [...] countryside as a dyad in its mythology of belonging” (124). While Afro-Puerto Rican blackness was read as exceptional, the white masculinity of the jíbaro was seen as more relatable. Fiol-Matta writes that this gendering and racialization made room for the racially ambiguous Calandria to create an alternatively gendered and racialized jíbara figure that experimented with and therefore critiqued the jíbaro as national icon.
          In the final chapter, Fiol-Matta returns to Benítez, whose success mirrored the decline of Puerto Rico’s developmentalism and the promise of progress touted by the ELA following the Cold War fears. Benítez went from being a white feminized pop star, to a masculine “Afro look” songwriter and social justice activist, to a hyper-feminine diva with leftist politics. But throughout, what remained a constant force was her thinking voice. Fiol-Matta argues that “[v]ocally, [Benítez] had begun to represent voice’s ‘attack,’ the very possibility of disordering and convulsing societal desires without containing precise, settled meanings” (186). With her melodramatic performances that left “no room for the illusion of identification” (219), Benítez called attention to the relation between performer and listener that makes her voice impervious to linear gendered narratives of the nation with their locked-down meanings.
          Fiol-Matta ends her book with a rumination on the phrase “nothing is something” (226). By the book’s end, nothing has become something resonant yet still not fully known. Fiol-Matta offers a crucial “reckoning with a sonorous past” (230) by way of these singers’ voices, as partial objects uncontained by the archive’s presumed mastery. The nothingness coursing through this book marks these singers’ status as “great women singers,” shunned from the category of “great singers.” At the same time, it also becomes the disruptive site through which these singers refuse to settle into the gendered title and the constricting aural-visual forms of proper femininity that prop up dominant masculine narratives of the nation. Pursuing the voice of Fernández in her 1942 song, “Nada,” Fiol-Matta’s book dwells on the word as both “colloquial introjection” and critical intervention: “It can be a conclusion to a series of statements, indicating completion, or an acknowledgment that resolution or completion is not possible” (30). The latter is where her book resides: in the wavering space where listening takes place, conjointly, and with an ear toward voices that are lousy, too low, too loud, or otherwise.


1. Here, I am thinking about a talk given by Licia Fiol-Matta and Alexandra T. Vazquez titled, “Overheard/Undertheorized: Feminist Listening,” held by the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at New York University on April 6th, 2017. In their conversation about their work, as well as Fiol-Matta’s book, Vazquez stated: “Sound studies can’t deal with the voice, can’t deal with women’s voices and bodies.”


Vazquez, Alexandra T. 2013. Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music. Durham: Duke University Press.

Women & Performance