“I want my country to be free,” said Ileana Cabra Joglar, better known as iLe, with one hand on her chest. During a recent performance at El Museo del Barrio — New York City’s leading art museum for the Latin American diaspora, and the jewel of Spanish Harlem — she took a moment between songs to give pause and take in the history of the space.
The city would give the Grammy-winning artist a warm welcome earlier that morning, on an otherwise chilly spring day. Similarly, iLe strikes a well-balanced paradox of extremes in all its iterations: She’s young but wise, shy yet confident, and seemingly fragile though she speaks every word with a quiet brawniness. “I don’t like to stay stuck in what makes me feel comfortable,” iLe tells Rolling Stone in Spanish, just a few days before the show. “I like to get out of my comfort zone and see what comes out of that. I break myself a bit, even if it feels hard at first… I like to at least give myself that chance.”
On May 10th, she’ll present Puerto Rico and the world with her intimate sophomore album, Almadura. A play on the word armadura (armor), the title literally translates to “strong soul” — a rather sane weapon of choice in arduous times. The 12 song collection is lyrically-focused, driven by emotion, and infused with call to actions between the lines for people from an island which has been colonized by the United States for over a century now.
Much like her treasured birthplace, 29-year-old Ileana Mercedes Cabra Joglar is in a transitional moment of her life and career. With over 13 years of experience under her belt, iLe is taking a moment to reintroduce herself and widen the scope of her musical range with choice experimentation in sounds, textures, and electronic effects she’s never touched before: this includes her eight years of piano studies at El Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico, and a lifetime’s worth of study in the works of Ismael Rivera, Ruben Blades and La Lupe. But, she admittedly never had an interest in singing, or taking center stage, until her brothers — René Perez Joglar and Eduardo José Cabra of Calle 13 — asked her to do just that.
When it comes to being referred to as a former member of the experimental hip-hop group, Ileana says: “If they weren’t my brothers, maybe I’d feel differently about it.” At age 16, she joined her brothers’ passion project, Calle 13, under the pseudonym PG-13, with little to no expectations. Yet what started as a family venture would soon earn worldwide acclaim, with four Grammys and a whopping 24 Latin Grammys — the most ever garnered by a single act thus far — and their songs became footnotes in the history of Puerto Rican music. She described that decade of her life as “not getting serious, until it did… except it never really felt like it did.”
When the season of Calle 13 came to an end, and the gifted siblings untethered themselves to pursue solo acts, iLe wasn’t sure of what would come next. But her brothers pushed her towards her own solo career: first by publicly claiming in interviews that she had a project in the works, prior to her making any conclusive decisions on next steps. Released in 2016, her solo debut iLevitable dug deep on matters of feminine sexuality, love and heartbreak. It was also an ode to the classics that shaped her sonic palette; with a lyrical compass steered by the forward-thinking writing of her late grandmother, Flor Amelia de Gracia, iLe crafted her own take on old-school boleros and bugalús, including a song with beloved Puerto Rican singer Cheo Feliciano, the one and only feature on that album.
“Puerto Rico and the Caribbean have a bunch of roots that are currently getting left behind,” iLe reckons. “I know reggaeton is more known, but even reggaeton has its roots — and it’s good for us to give color to all the rich musicality that we have.”
In continuing with iLe’s reverence to her roots, the new Almadura will include another well-known master of music: the inimitable 82-year-old jazz and salsa pianist Eddie Palmieri on the track, “Déjame Decirte” (“Let Me Tell You”). In addition, the creative team guiding the ship will again be a family affair, with her long-time partner and co-producer Ismael Cancel at the helm, and siblings Milena Perez and Gabriel Cabra as creative directors and advisors of sorts. Fans can expect a more varied tapestry of songs, with original songwriting (the exception being “De Luna,” written by her sister Milena Perez), and a continued focus on the sounds that move her, including bomba and salsa rhythms. Yet, the only bolero in the bunch is “Temes” (“You Fear”) — an intentionally non-romantic exception to the rule.
“The first album was about recognizing hurts and vulnerabilities and realizing that those aren’t weaknesses, but signs of strength,” she tells Rolling Stone. “Now [with Almadura], we release that strength, and courage.”
Almadura was in its early stages when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, and everything came to a grinding halt. It was what unfolded in the aftermath that triggered the lead single of Almadura, “Odio” (“Hate”); which would then set the album’s overall embattled tone. Similarly, in the second single “Temes” iLe tackles patriarchy and asks that it, too, be destroyed. Both are paired with evocative visuals, directed by Cesar Berrios and her sister Perez.
Another song she recalls working on in the wake of Hurricane Maria, is “Contra Todo,” or “Against All” — the cry of a beautiful yet hurt-stricken land. With lines like “Soy el terreno invadido, naturaleza robada… material resistente, con rabia despellejada,” she stresses just how deeply she carries Puerto Rico’s hurt: “I am the invaded terrain, stolen nature … resistant material, with rage flayed.”
Most who see her sing live may scoff at the thought of an iLe who didn’t think the stage was her purpose. As she belted her impassioned verses later that night in El Museo, gripping her multi-colored sequined dress at its sides, the lively audience saw her transport herself to a world all her own — one she hopes is more fair, understanding, and free.
“Everything in our lives is very connected,” muses iLe. “The thing is that it’s easy, and much more comfortable, to ignore it… but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect us. That’s the beauty of creating, the beauty of art, and of music — giving yourself permission to simply communicate what we feel — the discomfort, the grievances we live through every day, and in some way help to widen other people’s perspective a bit.”