Grammy-winner Ileana Cabra bares her Puerto Rican soul to the heartbeat of Latin percussion on her second album.
The title of iLe’s new album, Almadura, is a particularly Puerto Rican play on words. “Armadura” (which means ‘armor’ in Spanish) is written with an “r,” but in Puerto Rico we pronounce it like an “l,” she explains. “It’s armor, but it’s also alma dura [hard soul] — that’s like the shell that we put around our heart to protect it. Our 'almadura' is our courage.”
iLe (Ileana Cabra), who first became known to audiences onstage as the kid sister of Residente and Visitante in the groundbreaking band Calle 13, won a Grammy for her first solo album, 2016’s Ilevitable. Most of the songs on Almadura were written by iLe and her partner, former Calle 13 drummer Ismael Cancel, who co-produced with her and plays percussion and electronic beats. Milena Pérez Joglar, iLe’s sister, wrote the record’s closing song, “De Luna.” Eddie Palmieri is a special guest, playing a four-minute introduction to the track “Mi No,” which the Latin jazz and salsa legend wrote as a love letter to his wife. Trooko (Jeff Peñalva, who has worked with Residente) collaborated on the ambient electronic sounds layered with old-school tropical styles and the rhythms of Caribbean percussion that frame iLe’s intense vocals and on saxophones and piano, which is played elsewhere on the album by 23-year-old Puerto Rican player Julio Boria (hear his solo on “Ñe Ñe Ñe”).
iLe is set to perform in New York at Central Park SummerStage on July 10, as part of the Latin Alternative Music Conference. More tour dates are to be announced soon.
On the eve of Almadura’s release on Friday, iLe talked to Billboard (in Spanish) about Puerto Rico, percussion and the importance of speaking out.
Almadura is a post-Hurricane Maria record, and tracks like “De Aquí” (“From Here”) and “Contra Todo” (“Against Everything”) pulse with a fierce sense of place, even if you don’t mention Puerto Rico. How much is this a record “about” Puerto Rico?
I think it’s a record that’s made in Puerto Rico, but what it talks about is universal. I live here and I was born here, but what happens here can have a lot of similarities with other situations happening in other countries, in different ways.
Of course, I think it’s really crazy that Puerto Rico is a colony in 2019. … Here, you perhaps feel a lack of freedom that’s different from what you can feel in other countries. … In Puerto Rico, even we don’t understand a lot of what happens here; we are not informed, we don’t know enough about our own history and our capacity for survival. But Hurricane Maria showed us the opposite. We had to resolve things any way we could, and we did it among ourselves. I think that’s how human beings function: We don’t confront things until we are faced with the gravity of the situation. And I think this album comes out of the concerns that I have, and that awakening and that capacity that is within us to achieve true change in society, things aren’t going to change by themselves. We have to communicate and find ways to understand each other better.
I’m expressing what I feel, but I know that those feelings also express a lot of other stories around the world.
How did you conceive the sound of the album?
I imagined the music on this album as super percussive, and I’m very pleased with the result. Besides the fact that I love percussion, I felt that this record had to come from the pulse, from the beat of steps that mark a direction that I think we should take as a society.
In the Caribbean and Latin America, there is such a variety of rhythms, indigenous and African. It was very important to have a lot of different rhythms that connect with different countries, because we all have roots in Africa that connect us, though some people are not aware of them. I think those rhythms really connect with the themes of the album and that heartbeat of each song really helped me to write, taking me to different places.
It felt necessary for me to not use pure rhythms, but to mix them so that you can hear the rhythmic richness that we have among us. The album has a lot of different rhythmic directions. It’s about channeling that courage that we have inside — this album is about letting that out.
How did the collaboration with Eddie Palmieri come about?
Myself and my family are huge fans of Eddie Palmieri and also his bother, [the late] Charlie Palmieri. It’s music that we listen to almost every day wherever we are. It took a while, but we were able to connect with him and the result was much more than I had hoped for. The four-minute intro that he did was a dream for me. The record needed something instrumental and moving, and I feel proud to have Eddie Palmieri, a survivor of old school Puerto Rican salsa, on my album.
You sing about social injustice, violence against women, the Puerto Rican political situation. You are not afraid to speak out…
I grew up in a large family that always taught me to communicate what I was feeling, always with respect; I think that being quiet is not a solution. I learned that from my family, not from school. I think there are people who are afraid to speak out. And in the music world, there are artists who have forgotten that true purpose of art, which is that is comes from a place that has nothing to do with business and money, although of course everything is inclined toward that. I think a lot of people are afraid of not making money and they don’t express their true feelings.
The song “Contra Todo” includes the lyrics "I am my warrior heart." Would you describe yourself as a warrior?
It’s a song in which I am personifying a lot of things that represent us; I’m speaking as a citizen of the world. In Puerto Rico, we remain invaded; there are a lot of other countries that have gained their freedom., and a lot that are still struggling. This song talks about courage, and it transmits our pain and our history. Although we may have suffered horrible things, it’s important to remember. Because if we forget, we lose everything.