ILe Carries Latin Pop Back to the Future
ILe — the Puerto Rican singer and songwriter Ileana Mercedes Cabra Joglar — has a tattoo on her right wrist that reads, “Canta y Olvida Tu Dolor”: “Sing and forget your sorrow.” That’s the chorus of “Canta,” a 1970s hit for the salsa singer Cheo Feliciano. He made his last recording for iLe’s debut album, “iLevitable,” as a duet partner on “Dolor,” a bolero written by iLe’s grandmother, Flor Amelia de Gracia.
The tattoo signifies musical homage, family ties and artistic determination, and iLe has lived up to it. Her two albums, “iLevitable” from 2016 and this year’s “Almadura” — the title means “hard soul” and also is a pun on armadura, the Spanish word for armor — are simultaneously rooted and innovative, melding styles and upending old assumptions to create back-to-the-future Latin music.
“For me it’s very important to keep learning from my own roots,” iLe, 30, said in an interview at the New York offices of her label, Sony Music. “But when it comes to me creating something, I don’t like to repeat something that is already there, something that already happened. I want to challenge myself.”
ILe is performing at the free opening-night concert of the 20th annual Latin Alternative Music Conference on Wednesday at SummerStage in Central Park. Over the last two decades, the conference (abbreviated as L.A.M.C.) has sought to nurture Latin music that didn’t fit established radio and record-label formats; some of it went on to take over those outlets.
Through the years the conference has presented rising acts including songwriters like Julieta Venegas and Natalia Lafourcade; rock bands like Cafe Tacvba and La Vida Bohème; reggaeton performers like Vico C and Ivy Queen; electronic dance music from Systema Solar and Kinky; and hip-hop from Pitbull, Ana Tijoux, Princess Nokia and the Colombian group ChocQuibTown (which returns to headline SummerStage on Saturday). “We’ve helped to expand people’s listening to different types of sounds, and made it O.K. to do something different,” said Tomas Cookman, who founded the conference.
ILe has already made multiple conference appearances. Her first were with Calle 13, the musically omnivorous, politically charged hip-hop act built by her older brothers René Pérez Joglar (Residente) and Eduardo Cabra Martinez (Visitante); iLe started performing with Calle 13 at 16, when she was still in high school. She was out front with her brothers at one of L.A.M.C.’s most memorable concerts, an uproarious Calle 13 show with overflow crowds at Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park in 2012. One of the first concerts of iLe’s solo career was also a L.A.M.C. showcase, at the Highline Ballroom in 2016; that year, she was given the conference’s Discovery Award as most promising new artist.
Though “iLevitable” would go on to win the Grammy in 2017 for best Latin rock, urban or alternative album, iLe’s debut didn’t really fit those Grammy adjectives. In Calle 13 — calling herself PG-13 — she had been a bright-voiced chorus singer and a sassy rapper. On her own, iLe revealed an entirely different voice, one suited to pop from previous generations: sensual, nuanced, torchy. The sound of “iLevitable” partly harked back to plushly produced Latin pop songs of romance (and mostly heartache) from half a century ago: bolero, cha-cha and bugalú, with big-band horns and luxuriant strings. But she and her co-producer and songwriting collaborator, Ismael Cancel, also gave the music and lyrics some dark 21st-century twists. The album cover showed a slit wrist bleeding honey.
“The main theme of that album was vulnerability, but at its best — having no fear of acknowledging our own pains and what we go through,” iLe said. “‘Almadura’ is a transition. It’s about the strength you learn from your vulnerabilities.”
ILe previewed “Almadura” with “Temes” (“You’re Afraid”), a bolero questioning a man’s need for control. Its harrowing video, directed by iLe’s sister Milena Pérez Joglar, shows a woman — iLe — slowly pulling herself together after being left for dead in a sexual assault. “The only thing I could think of was, ‘That girl could be me,’” iLe said.
Between iLe’s first and second albums, Hurricane Maria slammed across Puerto Rico (as well as the Virgin Islands and Dominica) in 2017 and shattered the island’s infrastructure. ILe saw an indifferent response from the United States government and Puerto Ricans forced to make do as best they could, largely on their own.
“Hurricane Maria uncovered something we needed to see with our own eyes,” she said. It made iLe want to write about forces larger than romance on her next album. “All the plans changed completely,” she said. “With this album I’m in another moment, I’m angry. And I just needed to express that. It came naturally.”
“Almadura” begins with “Contra Todo” (“Against All”); in its lyrics, iLe makes herself the voice of an invaded territory, plotting resistance. It also includes “Odio” (“Hate”), which wishes for hatred to die of hunger because no one feeds it. (The video for “Odio” revisits one of Puerto Rico’s historical wounds, the 1978 police shooting of two activists seeking Puerto Rican independence.) “Ñe Ñe Ñé” uses a buoyant traditional Puerto Rican plena beat and a seemingly cheerful melody for a wake-up call, satirically mocking the government and decrying Puerto Rico’s humiliation and passivity.
“We don’t know about Latin American history in Puerto Rico,” iLe said. “Puerto Ricans don’t consider themselves as Latin Americans. Yeah, it’s crazy. We’ve been a colony for so long that we think that we are North Americans. When Puerto Ricans wake up, things are going to change for real.”
Working again with Cancel as co-producer, iLe also changed her musical foundation, switching from ballads to rhythmic propulsion. The core of “Almadura” is hand-played percussion instruments from across Latin America and the Caribbean, augmented on most songs by the Honduran electronic musician Trooko (who has also worked with Residente), meshing to assemble rhythms that sound both old and new because they are.
“For the entire album, the rhythms are not totally pure,” iLe said. “They have a mix of different rhythms from the Afro-Caribbean and Latin America. I was thinking about all the relationships we have, that I learned about while traveling” with Calle 13.
One song, “Curandera” (“Medicine Woman”), uses only percussion and iLe’s voice, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for a traditional song. “I didn’t want to hold myself to one particular rhythm,” she said, explaining that the galloping beat is part palo dominicana (from the Dominican Republic), part Puerto Rican bomba, part Colombian cumbia and part Yoruba rhythms from West Africa.
As she did on her first album, iLe also reaches back to salsa’s golden age on “Almadura.” She enlisted the great Nuyorican pianist Eddie Palmieri for a decidedly un-nostalgic cha-cha, “Déjame Decirte” (“Let Me Tell You”), with lyrics that declare, “No matter how much you threaten me/I’m not going to give up.”
And after so many troubled and defiant thoughts, iLe ends the album with a song by her sister Milena Pérez Joglar, “De Luna,” with lyrics full of surreal transformations. Its smoldering, kinetic, conga-driven beat suggests one of Latin music’s cornerstones, an Afro-Cuban rumba, but the details are deliberately different. The beat iLe sang over is an uninterrupted take by two conga drummers playing live in the studio.
“I told them that it can sound like a rumba, but I didn’t want it to be pure,” iLe said. “I told them they can break the rules. And something new happened.”
ILe performs at SummerStage in Central Park on Wednesday at 6 p.m.; cityparksfoundation.org/summerstage.
Jon Pareles has been The Times’s chief pop music critic since 1988. A musician, he has played in rock bands, jazz groups and classical ensembles. He majored in music at Yale University. @JonPareles
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