Journal of World Popular Music, Vol 1, No 2 (2014)



Book Review

Ruth Hellier, ed. 2013. Women Singers in Global Contexts: Music, Biography, Identity. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press. 264pp. ISBN 978-0-2520-37245 (pbk)

Reviewed by: Sheila Whiteley, University of Salford, UK and Queen’s University, Canada

Keywords: biography; gender; identity; singers; women

In a period when the impact of popular music on identity is constantly under scrutiny, it is refreshing to find a collection of articles that are not focused on pornographic imagery and a sexually-heightened performance. Rather, the ten women featured in this vibrant collection are celebrated for their vocal stories, which provide a unique insight into both their private and performing lives. As Hellier explains, the volume as a whole “coheres around three elements: first, each chapter focuses on a unique woman; second, singing plays a major role in each woman’s life; and third, a biographical and lived experiences approach of specificity provides the overarching framework” (2). Given the book’s global context, it is not too surprising that individuals are engaged with different genres of music (jazz, rap, traditional, folk, devotional and classical) and that these, in turn, involve different vocal styles. Nor, given its sociocultural perspective, is it too surprising that each individual embodies multiple selves in specific situations; that each singer is subject to transformations and personal journeys in their chronological lives—that the “self” is “locally articulated in specific contexts” (Tolbert 2003: 80) and, more specifically for the singer, the recognition that “people’s voices change over time” (Frith 1995: 6). Rather, the impact of Women Singers in Global Contexts lies in the sensitive and thought-provoking relationship between the biographer and the singer, and the often uncomfortable yet inspiring revelations about how and why repressive and, at times, tyrannical environments can empower rather than subdue. Individual stories unfold “through narrative ethnography, biography, verbatim text, and analysis to convey fragments of these women’s lives” (5) and this is augmented by an underlying feel for poetic and experimental writing.

For the scholar, the researcher, the feminist, the musician, Part One of the introductory chapter provides the critical conceptual and methodological issues and approaches that underpin the volume: the interface between music-making and vocal aesthetics, identity politics, ideology and authoring. What is fundamental to the biographers’ engagement with the singers is the identification of the solo voice as a creative act, presenting both vulnerability and a connectivity that provokes and activates memory and perception. While this sense of “encounter” with self and others is a common thread that runs throughout the book, it is how each individual singer chose to vocalize and how, in turn, this relates to the associations between voice and identity, not least how vocal aesthetics shape and define notions of “woman”, that is central. For the ethnomusicologist, what is intriguing here is the way in which the aesthetics of the voice, including individual texture (cf. Barthes 1977), are related to individual concerns of empowerment. While there are “expectations of alignment between voice and gender” (Peraino 2007: 63), none of the vocalists discussed overtly played a role defined through the conventions of performance and, as such, the focus is upon their connections to “place, class, ethnicity and identity” (cf. Field et al. 2004), thus highlighting the concept of the voice as metaphor for “vocality, political autonomy and both individual and collective power” (Hayes 2006: 72). What is unique to Women Singers in Global Contexts is that each chapter offers “narratives that invoke the interface of the literal singing voice and the metaphorical voice, exploring relationships between a singing voice and voice as agency, and how a singing voice enables voice as power to be enacted” (5). For those who combine musicology with a concern for gender and its ideology, it is recognized that there are “limitations, subtle and overt, filial and societal, contestable and insurmountable, that women, often regardless of race, class, geographic location, or historical time, face[d] as performers, as creators, and even as listeners because of the ideology of gender” (Cook and Tsou 1994: 8). As such, the volume can be read as a source of inspiration, with each chapter focusing on one individual who has been selected through each author’s personal contact and interest in the person as both woman and singer. What is global, then, is the relationship between the macro and micro, as a reference to flows of power and politics in national, inter- and trans-national contexts. “Each woman is situated in her own profoundly personal and localized situation, yet she is inherently part of much wider political contexts” (8).

As individual authors reflect, there are problems writing a narrative that balances the tension between ideas/theories and the individual singer and, as such, the focus lies more on “the practice of lived experiences and decision-making” (10). Issues also arise in balancing the woman’s narrative with that of the author’s. As readers will discover, the solution was to focus on how the individual woman interfaces and interacts with her context and tradition, so embedding her narrative within larger and more complex soundscapes and environments. There is also a recognition that the accounts presented are fragmentary—an acceptance that lives are not joined-up, coherent experiences, that it is not until events can be framed within a life:death timescale, that a full life-cycle can be encapsulated. What connects the ten chapters, then, is an identification of Woman, as a principal axis of identity, one that encompasses both selfhood and representation. This approach is explored throughout the volume, most notably in the ways in which the individual singers, identified as “‘women’, are constructed, shaped, created, received, crafted and constrained” (12), so foregrounding the proposition that gender is socially constructed, that individuals are polysemic, while accepting that “what it is to be a woman or a man is still very much a live issue” (Mikkola 2008). What the authors are exploring, then, is multiplicity of subject positions, “a diversity and specificity of women rather than any notional woman” (Whiteley 2000: 96 citing Gunew 1990: 29), one that embodies both complexity and shifting identities. As such, while I have read the book as a celebration of ten unique women singers, its ten chapters also provide an interesting perspective for students and researchers engaged with similar projects. Not least the identification of personal identity as affiliated to sexuality, to age, to ethnicity and nationality, and to class, reveals an awareness of the ways in which multiple affiliations and a diversity of identity formations and connections come to the fore. Singers are obliged to make vocal choices, which, in turn, are shaped by fitting or resisting conventions as they choose.

The special relationship between author and singer is, for me, what shapes the integrity of the biographies and, as such, Part Two of the Introduction creates both a feeling of “getting to know” and, more importantly, trust: the sharing of experiences whereby a research relationship can be transformed into friendship. More specifically, “Meeting the Singers and Authors” provides a glimpse into why and how choices were made, both in the singer’s life, and in the approach taken by the author in relating their narratives. As Hellier writes: the threads and themes that interlace through the narratives have emerged and emanated “from aspects that the women themselves regard as important rather than being imposed by the authors” (25). Nevertheless, “two overarching and interlocked motifs are present throughout: discussion of the literal singing voice, and the metaphorical voice… [which relates to] self-determination, agency and the power to choose” (25). Themes are thus presented as tensions, each presenting possibilities with a range of consequences.

What is exhilarating about Women Singers in Global Contexts is the insight gained into the relationship between singing, belonging, identity and empowerment, including that of making money. As each woman sings to connect with people, “choices about body-use, body-form, and body-covering form a vital element in the reception of the voice” (18), and the extent to which these are/are not empowering is an important part of the decision process. More specifically, given that singers come from a variety of often repressive backgrounds, such concerns are highlighted by the fact that singing, itself, can be a reason for rejection, disapproval and shame, including in one case study, imprisonment (see, for example, “Zainab Herawi: Finding Acclaim in the Conservative Islamic Culture of Afghanistan” [194–212] and “Sima’s Choices: Negotiating Repertoires and Identities in Contemporary Iran” [177–93]). Yet, as the studies reveal, taking a risk can facilitate positive outcomes, not least that of confidence. As Hellier observes, “Some chapters deal with blatantly political, religious and ideological agency” (see, for example, “Amelia Pedroso: The Voice of a Cuban Priestess Leading from the Inside” [54–73], “Kyriakou Pelagia: The Housewife/Grandmother-Star of Cyprus” [112–30], “Lexine Solomon: Songs of Connection and Celebration by a Torres Strait Islander” [131–45] and “Sima’s Choices” [op. cit.]), whereas others are far from controversial. Some narratives concern overcoming challenges and obstacles (“Akiko Fujii: Telling the Musical Life Stories of a Hereditary Jiuta Singer of Japan” [48–53], “Ayben: The Girl’s Voice in Turkish Rap” [73–91], “Lexine Solomon” and “Zainab Herawi” [op. cit.]), whereas others are more related to gently shaping pathways (“Ixya Herrera: Gracefully Nurturing ‘Mexico’ with Song in the U.S.A.” [92–111] and “Marysia’s Voice: Defining Home through Song in Poland and Canada” [146–60]). The legacy of each woman is profound, not only for those who follow her, but also for the reader. As such, I thank Ruth Hellier for her thoughtful editing, the individual authors for allowing me to share in their relationship with their iconic singer, and the singers who have introduced me to different genres of music and the ways in which their voices relate to the experiences, tensions and life choices they have had to confront. Audio examples of all the singers featured can be heard via the dedicated companion website that accompanies Women Singers in Global Contexts: There is also an opportunity to hear the women’s voice on the recordings detailed in the individual chapters.

As Ellen Koskoff writes in the “Afterword”: “This is not the usual collection of articles on women and music—this is both an illuminating set of biographical case studies—and, more importantly, a tour de force, illustrating the engaging use of creatively experimental writing that, like the music it discusses, flows gracefully through these pages” (213). I agree, and warmly recommend this beautifully produced book both to specialists in the field and to the general reader who, I am sure, will find inspiration and delight in getting to know both the singer and her biographer.


Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press.

Cook, Susan C. and Judy S. Tsou, eds. 1994. “Introduction: ‘Bright Cecilia’”. In Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music, 1–14. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Feld, Steven, Aaron A. Fox, Thomas Porcello and David Samuels. 2004. “Vocal Anthropology: From the Music of Language to the Music of Song”. In A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, ed. Alessandro Duranti, 321–45. Oxford: Blackwell.

Frith, Simon. 1995. “The Body Electric”. Critical Quarterly 37/2: 1–10.

Gunew, Sneja. ed, 1990. Feminist Knowledge, Critique and Construct. London: Routledge.

Hayes, Eileen. 2006. “Theorising Gender, Culture and Music”. Women and Music 10: 71–79.

Mikkola, Mari. 2008. “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender”. In The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta.

Peraino, Judieth. 2007. “Listening to Gender: A Response to Judith Halberstam”. Women and Music 11: 59–63.

Tolbert, Elizabeth. 2003. “Reviewing Music and Gender”. Women and Music 7: 76–82.

Whiteley, Sheila. 2000. Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity, and Subjectivity. London: Routledge.


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