Puerto Rican singer-songwriter iLe has been called an “old soul.” It is a fitting description for a woman who at the age of 28 has already experienced a full career with her brothers in the alternative hip-hop act Calle 13 and won a Grammy with her first solo offering, Ilevitable.
Born Ileana Mercedes Cabra Joglar, iLe began her musical life by playing piano, with no intention of ever singing. But she always had a notion her voice would play an important role in her life. By the age of 16, she was the female vocal powerhouse behind one of Calle 13’s most popular songs, “La Aguacatona.”
“I’m very open to listen to different kinds of music, and I’ve tried to learn as much as I can,” she says. “I started because of my family, and I learned a lot of the music of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.”
These days, it’s her native Puerto Rico, ravaged by Hurricane Maria, that demands any knowledge or wisdom gleaned from past lives. When she speaks with New Times over the phone from Puerto Rico, the connection liable to break at any moment, at least the news concerning her family is positive.
The best way to describe most Puerto Ricans on the island outside of San Juan is surviving. Things are slightly better for iLe and her family. They’ve at least reached the level of coping.
“We’re good,” iLe says, a weariness present in her voice that defies her assuredness. “We’re seeing everything around us, but we’re doing a lot better than most of the country.”
As iLe and her band prepare for her upcoming tour, she seems to be of two minds, split between hope and sorrow.
“Some parts of the island [have power], mostly hospitals. It’s weird. It’s definitely something new for me. We’re learning a lot from this... I’ll just take it as a new experience. Because if I take it the other way, I’ll be depressed. I think we as a country are doing our best, and that starts by working together, reconstructing our country by ourselves, not thinking about or waiting for anyone else.”
Despite this resolute determination to be self-sufficient, iLe has one big concern that is more short-term than long. “Being healthy, that’s what worries me the most. A lot of people are dying, and it’s scary. I’m happy to do this tour, but the thing that I want to do the most is to speak to people in any way I can and let them know what we’re going through here.”
In addition to telling not only her story but also that of an entire people, iLe will accept donations at every show.
Although she has visited some American cities in the past with Calle 13, this will be her first major tour as a solo artist, bringing her award-winning debut record, Ilevitable, to the States.
For her Florida debut, iLe will grace the breezy, oceanside stage of the North Beach Bandshell Thursday, November 2. Despite Miami’s large Hispanic population, iLe says she doesn’t know what to expect.
“I like that. I like to not expect things, to be a little more surprised and make every presentation as unique as possible," she says. "I think that’s going to happen not just because I like it, but because of everything going on. The energy is going to be powerful.”
As if iLe’s decade spent in a band with her two brothers wasn’t enough of an indication of the strong bond between family and music in her life, two of the songs on Ilevitable were written by her grandmother, three by her sister, some by extended family, and the remainder by iLe herself.
With her first album, iLe left no cultural stone unturned and mined the rich musical history of her homeland. This collection of songs is diverse and eclectic, touching upon a number of genres, including jazz, pop, rock, and salsa, and styles, ranging from the dreamy to the soulful. To achieve the full breadth of her ambitions and the vibrant live effect she eagerly desired, iLe employed more than 75 musicians.
“It was my first album, and I wanted to do everything at the same time,” she half-jokes. “Here we have a lot of talented musicians, and a lot of these songs are boleros and mambos. It takes a lot of people to make that sound in the way that it’s supposed to sound.”
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iLe took the more difficult route in constructing Ilevitable. “If I had to do something more elaborate with instrumentation, I will do it," she adds. "If it takes four trumpets or more than that, I’ll do it.” An even more challenging project will be putting her island back together.
Humble throughout, iLe says near the end of the conversation, “I don’t like to talk about myself.” But she does say that the United States is blocking attempts by other nations to help the island, a strategy that is leading to deaths, including suicides out of desperation.
So it could be said there is no better ambassador for not only her own livelihood but also that of the people suffering in Puerto Rico. Hers will be a message delivered through the beautiful sounds of her music and impassioned pleas on behalf of these forgotten American citizens.