Catalina Maria Johnson

International radio broadcaster, bilingual cultural journalist, music curator

ILE

“That instant emotion, that thing that you feel with older people and artists mainly from the Caribbean … they used to have this passion that transmitted directly to the soul! I wanted to transmit that,” says Puerto Rican singer and composer Ileana Cabra Joglar, known by the artistic name of iLe.

Acclaimed since she began performing as an adolescent alongside brothers René Pérez Joglar (Residente) and Eduardo José Cabra Martínez (Visitante) in their performances as Calle 13, iLe is describing the unique musical vision expressed in her debut album iLevitable.

Born into a powerhouse Puerto Rican musical dynasty, iLe’s builds on an array of these connections in iLevitable. Her brother Visitante contributed keyboards and musical arrangements. Her dad, Joey Cabra contributed vocals and her uncle José Pujal provided some musical arrangements also. Her partner (and Calle 13 drummer) Ismael Cancel co-produced the album.

However, the spiritual and emotional center of the album are the songs created by women in iLe’s family: Ileana herself, her sister Milena, and the poignant songs, Dolor and Quien eres tú written by Flor de Amelia de Gracia, her grandmother.

ILe, who now has her grandmother’s record player as well as some of her vinyls, speaks of how the family knew, shared and sang Flor Amelia de Gracia’s songs. One evening, over special hamburgers, “the kind she cooked for us when we were kids”, says iLe, her grandmother shared her songs with iLe more formally, and then gave her a cassette of herself singing in 1978 and also singing a capella at a fairly advanced age; a beloved possession iLe calls “…for me, like gold. A treasure”. These moments and music became even more special when her grandmother passed away in 2011 without ever being able to hear any of the songs iLe recorded.

What makes iLe’s music extraordinary is the intelligent, intensely passionate edge she adds to the often syrupy sweet (albeit beautiful) torch tunes that were all the rage in mid-20th Century and throughout all of Latin America – there was hardly a land from Colombia to Cuba to Puerto Rico to Mexico that did not develop a heartfelt bolero tradition.

For example, on Rescatarme, one of her own compositions, iLe begins the song by reading a quote from “Detente Sombra” by 16th century Mexican nun, poet and early feminist Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. This leads into cinematic wails and a positively La Lupe-esque delivery of the tortured refrain: “You split open my soul, and left it to die, but with time, I was able to rescue myself”, punctuated by hard salsa horns. 

In contrast, a song such as Te quiero con bugalú, appears to be almost frothy and light in it’s classic late 60’s groove. But nothing iLe does is quite ordinary, as is evident in the videos for several of the songs.

Te quiero con bugalú takes what iLe visualizes what she calls, “…sexual appetite but also in a very caring, loving way, and also from the feminine side”, something that “…we all as women can identify with it…there’s this guy, we would love it to be perfect, but it’s not, only hasta cierto punto. You cannot live with him”.

Or take the video for Canibal, which builds upon a ballad that sonically references the surreal in the occasional psych-twang of its lush string arrangements, then visually intersects motions and motifs a la Frida Kahlo and Like Water for Chocolate in the sexiest, strangest recipe demonstration ever.

It’s all part of an intricate creative process that yields unexpected results, concludes iLe: “I knew I wanted to transmit something very profound from the place that maybe we want to ignore or pretend that it doesn’t exist. But it is better to let it out, work it out, cleansing yourself from the bottom of your heart!”

 

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iLe will perform Thursday July 14 as part of the Millennium Park Summer Concert Series.

 

Check Catalina’s weekly exploration of Latin music on Beat Latino.

Feature photo: Raquel Perez Puig