From teen prodigy to freedom fighter, singer iLe strikes a chord for an independent Puerto Rico
“I didn’t know at all what I was doing,” said Ileana Cabra Joglar, who at just 16 joined her brothers Residente and Visitante in the wildly popular and politically fearless hip-hop group Calle 13.
“I was just enjoying everything and exploring everything I wanted ... and I felt super free,” she recently recalled of her days singing in front of thousands of fans while still in high school. During those formative years, using the stage name PG-13, a reference to her youth, “I learned how crazy it can be and how intense everything is.
“Now that I have my own project, I feel like I released such a big part of me with them.”
Ile, as she’s known today, was recently in Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards, where her 2019 sophomore solo album “Almadura” was nominated for best Latin rock, urban or alternative album. Her independent debut record “iLevitable” earned her an award in the same category in 2017 and a nomination for best new artist at the Latin Grammys that same year. (She will perform at Echoplex on Sunday.)
Ile, now 30, is humbled by the accolades and critical acclaims.
“When I’m working on an album I’m completely focused on what I’m doing and how I want to present everything. What happens after that is always a surprise,” she said on a January morning in Hollywood. “That’s part of the magic of doing art. That it’s very uncertain. I try to enjoy that uncertainty.”
Ismael Cancel, iLe’s romantic partner who has produced both of her solo albums and is currently drumming on tour with her, attested that “you have no idea what’s coming out of it. She is very sensible but at the same time defensive of what she’s releasing ... she doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind.”
Family, more than anything, has been at the root of iLe’s musical career. Calle 13 is, after all, the name of the street where she grew up with most of her nine siblings. They’re all artists, so collaborating with and getting feedback from them comes naturally, even now as an independent musician.
Growing up, her home in San Juan — where she still lives with her dog Chamaco — was filled with music and art. She liked to sing as a hobby but her focus then was on the piano: she studied it at music conservatory in Puerto Rico for eight years. She lost most of her piano chops when she shifted her attention to her voice. “Singing is how I feel better transmitting music,” she said.
As for her big brothers and former Calle 13 band mates, René Pérez Joglar, a.k.a. Residente, and Eduardo José Cabra Martínez, a.k.a. Visitante, they can often be spotted in the crowds at her shows, rooting for their little sister.
“My brothers have everything to do with what I am now … we are each other’s core,” she said.
Before their 2015 hiatus, Calle 13 produced five critically acclaimed albums and took home more than 20 Latin Grammys, the most of any act in history. Despite their booming success, iLe and her brothers wanted something new. “Naturally, we wanted to explore other things individually” after making music together for so long, she said. Looking back, the band was “not as much a project as it is the house where we grew up. It’s my family.”
Asked if there’s a Calle 13 reunion in the foreseeable future, iLe shrugged: “Maybe. I don’t know. If it happens, it happens, and we’ll do it together.”
In the meantime, as both a solo artist and a proud Puerto Rican, iLe continues to press for political and social change.
“I’m part of a minority that wants Puerto Rico to be an independent country,” she said. “I know we are totally capable of being auto sufficient.
“It has always been a frustration for me … that Puerto Ricans think that they should be receiving mistreatment or that they deserve humiliation, or they start to believe that they are not capable,” she said, her hands punctuating her words in midair.
“I’ve always wanted to see my country react,” iLe said. Watching it unfold before her eyes made her “happy to be alive.”
She knew the time would eventually come. What she didn’t anticipate was the harmony between “Almadura” and the social-political energy brewing in Puerto Rico.
“Some people said to me that the album was premonitory,” she said, breaking into a smile. “It’s not that I never thought it could happen. I knew that one day it would, but I never thought it was going to be so connected with the album’s energy. It was like ‘Whoa, this is what I was feeling all along and now I’m living it.’”
Whereas “iLevitable” was an album about acknowledging pain and vulnerability, “Almadura” — a play on the Spanish word “armadura,” which means armor — is about strength.
Eighteen months after the release of “iLevitable,” Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico in September 2017. The U.S. territory plunged into darkness and nearly 3,000 deaths were linked to the Category 4 storm. Ile was infuriated by what she believed was the United States’ apathetic response to the destruction, leaving the island’s residents to largely fend for themselves.
“Almadura” became a soundboard for that anger. The album explodes with “Contra Todo,” a song about oppression and colonization. “Soy el terreno invadido/ Naturaleza robada/ Soy pensamiento indebido/ Grito de voz silenciada” (“I am the invaded land/ Nature robbed/ I am a wrongful thought/ A screaming voice silenced”),” she sings in the opening lines.
The rhythm shifts and Cabra’s voice marches steadily into the chorus: “Quieren verme caer / Pero daré bien la talla / Atravesar la muralla / Voy contra todo pa defender” (“They want to see me fall / But I’ll stand tall / Breach the wall / I’ll go against everything in order to defend”).
The track “Odio” (“Hate”) takes a look at the U.S.’ history of violence with Puerto Rico. The bolero track “Temes” tackles another societal ill: machismo and violence against women. “We shouldn’t be measuring out capabilities with physical strength, because it’s so much more than that. And it’s so ridiculous,” she says with annoyance. Still, she recognizes it’s important to talk about.
“It’s her megaphone, it’s her voice” said KCRW DJ Raul Campos, who’s followed iLe’s career since her days with Calle 13. Music, he said, “is the way she speaks to the masses. She’s talking about real issues, in real time, and she wants to make a difference.”
“We have so much pride [as Puerto Ricans],” iLe proclaimed. “We’re everywhere and we show who we are, but politically and socially we are afraid, and so it’s important to try to break that fear or use that fear in our favor; to keep going.
“Unexpected things happen and suddenly you don’t know what to do, but for me, music is always that tool that guides me.”
When: March 1
Where: Echoplex, 1154 Glendale Blvd.
Tickets: $23 - $28
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