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The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music by Licia Fiol-Matta

Fiol-Matta, Licia. 2017. The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 312 pages; Cloth: $99.95, Paperback: $25.95

Fiol-Matta, Licia. 2017. The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 312 pages; Cloth: $99.95, Paperback: $25.95

Licia Fiol Matta’s recent book The Great Woman Singer is a brilliant analysis of performance and embodied experience that centers the vocal archive of four great Puerto Rican singers: Myrta Silva, Ruth Fernández, Ernestina Reyes, and Lucecita Benítez. Focusing on how “the thinking voice” operates, Fiol-Matta follows the career of these great women performers, carefully attending to how each artist negotiates the public affects that oscillate between the antipodes of adoration and derision. Troubling the once fixed paradigms of music studies that rendered female singers within heterosexual fantasies and narratives of failed romances, Fiol-Matta uses the method of critical biography to open up new histories as presented through an archive of the voice. In her words, Fiol-Matta aims to “disrupt the normative business of scholarly studies on women artists. Overall, 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” (28).

The book opens with a layered exploration of singer Lucecita Benítez’s song “Génesis” whose apocalyptic words, during the late 1960s and 1970s era of potential nuclear annihilation, captured the anxious structure of feeling in Puerto Rico, “Cuando nada en la tierra quede que tibie el sol / When nothing is left on Earth to feel the warmth of the sun.” For a small island nation whose fate was in the hands of larger world powers, Lucecita’s vocal presence resounded amidst the dangers of planetary disaster. This analysis shapes the book and is taken up in a more prolonged fashion in chapter four, “The Thinking Voice” that dwells on how Lucecita’s elaborate singing in “Génesis” is punctuated with melodramatic singing and a masculine performance. Given the coloniality of global climate change and the aftermath of Hurricane María, Fiol Matta’s account shows how Lucecita’s performance offers trans-temporal relevance for a new era of catastrophe where cause and effects are in the control of others.

Moreover, in anxious times, as Fiol-Matta describes, Lucecita’s embodiment symbolized refusal and a different kind of gendered presence. As an androgynous woman who donned a tuxedo, Lucecita also offered exciting performances that both disrupted the idea of the female intuitive voice and disturbed gender normativity in Latin America. By lingering on the singer’s vocal capacity (that seemed to outrun the orchestra), and through careful attention to Lucecita’s stage presence, Fiol-Matta creates a vital portrait of what she calls “the thinking voice.” Lucecita Benítez, the author argues, “emerges as our first example of the thinking voice, given the encounter between natural talent, skillful deployment of shifting codes governing performing female bodies, and the larger-context game changer of the ascent of of the music industry in unequal hemispheric development” (28).

Not satisfied with one reading of this performance, however, Fiol-Matta dips into the archive of heteroglossic gestures that comprises Afro-diasporic female sound. That is, following Daphne Brooks and Fred Moten, Fiol-Matta shows how Lucecita’s queer Blackness refuses racial, gender, and sex categories just as she refutes social expectations through fugitive transgressions that exceed any normative frame. More generally, in relation to the four singers and performers that she studies, Fiol-Matta shows how “The Thinking Voice” cannot be cast off as merely intuitive or ready made for capitalist consumption but has “the potential to be world-transforming” (198).

Indeed, one of the theoretical contributions of The Great Woman Singer is to work through the temporality of the thinking voice, especially through the notion of Agamben’s future perfect, or the time of the arkhé. Through a skillful assessment of the realm of the future perfect that cannot be situated in chronological time, and that instead describes the point of emergence and becoming, the reader is made to understand how the voice potentially escapes normative confinements. The mnemonic presence of the thinking voice is apprehended not only through the recordings and videos, but through the critical attention Fiol-Matta affords to the embodied experience of female singers in an often asphyxiating heteronormative and racist national and global order.

The dexterity of Fiol-Matta’s theoretical method becomes apparent in chapter one, “Getting Off…The Nation” that focuses on Myrta Silva’s virtuosity. The chapter, however, also shows Fiol-Matta’s virtuostic archival knowledge and the range of the author’s command over Caribbean / Puerto Rican cultural history. Through a close reading of the two personas of Myrta Silva, the performer as Myrta Silva and her alterego “Chencha,” Fiol-Matta brilliantly captures the complexity of the artist’s creative negation. Despite the fact that Silva had multiple identities and talents as a singer, composer, producer, host, bandleader and artist agent, in the book Fiol-Matta describes how she was often only remembered for the Chencha character that “unmasked secrets about celebrity sex lives.” As Fiol-Matta shows, Silva’s singing performance and later the Chencha onstage person allowed for a complex negotiation of the singer’s gender and sexual identity as well as an attack on societal prohibitions. Fiol-Matta describes how Silva theorized “her own performance in her humorous repertoire through a complex negativity, therefore having, as it were, the last laugh: ‘who’s disgusting now?’ As the author explains, “the inability to preserve a comfortable distance from the object… came to define the success of any Myrta Silva performance.” Nothingness, as a meaning system within the song “Nada,” allows Fiol-Matta to explore the thinking voice as a range of queer performative intimacies that operate in the relays between public and private. Negativity becomes a supple form of performative critique. For instance, using Sionne Ngai’s emphasis on ugly feelings, Fiol-Matta shows how Myrta Silva’s queerness is routed through improvisation, ironic distancing, the name change to Chencha, and the interjection of tone, sneers, and scoffs. Silva does not simply take on the weight of normativity, but powerfully sings back and through the gossip about her gender non-conforming appearance, creating new modes of gender presentation. “The Thinking Voice” in the oeuvre of Myrta is her ability to doubly perform her difference, and her knowing disidentification.

I have to say that I am a huge fan of Fiol-Matta’s Queer Mother for the Nation (2002), and so I eagerly anticipated and quickly devoured The Great Woman Singer. In the first book, Fiol-Matta powerfully reads the larger-than-life literary figure of Gabriela Mistral, situating her within a complex matrix of queerness and female masculinity in relation to state politics. In both books, Fiol-Matta brilliantly develops a unique archival reading practice that disturbs dominant representations and narratives, even as she shows how figures and audiences sometimes and often participate in them. The Great Woman Singer is a lucid contribution to sound studies, gender studies, the critical humanities, Puerto Rican studies, and studies of the Americas, foregrounding new ways to constitute, situate, and analyze musical and performance archives. As importantly, it shows the distinct power and imagination of Fiol-Matta’s own thinking voice.

Macarena Gómez-Barris is Chairperson of the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute and Director of the Global South Center. She is author of The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives that theorizes social life through five extractive scenes of ruinous capitalism upon Indigenous territories (Duke University Press, 2017). She is also author of Beyond the Pink Tide: Art and Politics in the Américas (UC Press, 2018), Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile (UC Press, 2009), and co-editor with Herman Gray of Towards a Sociology of a Trace (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). Gómez-Barris was a Fulbright fellow in 2014-2015 at Sociology and Gender Department in FLACSO Ecuador, Quito.