Genre vs gender

The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music
Licia Fiol-Matta
2017, Duke University Press
291 pages, plates, paperback

AS A THEORETICAL journey into the role of women’s voices in Puerto Rican modernity, Licia Fiol-Matta’s book is interesting, but as a detailed introduction to four singers whose contribution to music has not been fully explored, it makes a valuable addition to an under-researched field.

The Great Woman Singer sets out to examine how the voices and performance of four iconic women singers transform possibilities for comprehending the role of the woman singer.

In the process, however, it provides an invaluable and extremely well informed biographical portrait of Myrta Silva, Ruth Fernández, Ernestina Reyes and Lucecita Benítez. In their own ways, all of these performers challenged the expectations of them both as women singers but also as women per se.

Indeed, Benítez became so disillusioned with the repertoire she was expected to perform in fulfilment of both gender and nationalist narratives that she asked herself “Why am I singing this nonsense?” and refused to conform to feminine sartorial norms, often being described as “boyish” or “androgynous”.

Fernández is perhaps one of the most interesting characters in Puerto Rican cultural history, the first successful Afro-Puerto Rican female singer who smashed colour barriers and stereotypes as well as clocking up smash hits in both her homeland and the US.

She brushed off white racism and proudly appropriated the term “Negra”, referring to herself as “La Negra de Ponce” in reference to her colour and home town.

Her record achievements go on: she participated in the first televised music show broadcast in Puerto Rico, was the first woman to sing in a Puerto Rican orchestra, was the first Puerto Rican woman to sing “popular” music at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, was the first Latina to record with a US band, and pioneered Latin music in Scandinavia.

As if that wasn’t enough, she became the first singer ever elected to the Puerto Rican Senate – a momentous achievement at that time for a black woman – and also served the country’s government in cultural roles.

As a loyal member of the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD), many of whose members affiliate with the Democrats, she championed the causes of poor people and Puerto Rican expatriates in the US.

The Great Woman Singer provides a splendid biographical picture of these four performers while developing the notion of the “thinking voice” which challenges dominant narratives.

It is, therefore, both an invaluable archival source, particularly in the field of ethnomusicology, and a thoughtful, critical theorization of voice and gender that, simultaneously, does a pretty fine job of making sure Puerto Rican women singers are given the attention they are due.