Awakening the Sensorium in Puerto Rico’s Colonial Modernity

Cruz-Malavé, Arnaldo M.

The reading of this beautifully crafted, exhaustively documented, and ethically inspired book by Licia Fiol-Matta, The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music, takes me back to this scene of my early youth. For The Great Woman Singer is a book about the call to open-ended aural suspension and search, about the incitement to listen to what Fiol-Matta defines as the skillfully complicated, contradictorily rich, self-reflexive, brilliant “thinking voice” that four of Puerto Rico’s greatest female pop singers, Myrta Silva, Ruth Fernández, Ernestina Reyes (La Calandria), and Lucecita Benítez, manifested in their singing during the period encompassed by the island’s process of colonial modernity and its aftermath.

In tense dialogue with the social forces that would turn their powerfully odd, singular voices into mere representative “nada” or nothingness, Fiol-Matta offers in her book alternative stories of Puerto Rico’s complex and often cruel colonial modernity as told from the most intimate and ephemeral of spaces: from the grain of the singing voice that thinks as it sonically wrestles with its gendered, racialized, and class-coded conditions, the technologies of modernity in the music industries, the sonic ideologies of progress and development of the Puerto Rican Estado Libre Asociado or Commonwealth state, and forced migration and its marginalization in the urban metropolitan setting of New York. The Great Woman Singer is thus simultaneously a tentative and thoughtful reconstruction of the performances of this singing “thinking voice,” based on a painstakingly varied acopio or collection of ephemera (interviews, reviews, programs, records, cassettes, CDs, MP3s, publicity photos, album covers, posters, newspaper clippings, wardrobe, videos, films, fan recollections, and memories), and a critical pedagogy on how to listen to these voices if we are to recover not the intent of the originally sung performances but the polysemous possibilities of interpretation that these four masterfully enduring voices inscribed in them.

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November 13, 2019