Ten years ago, Ileana Cabra stood on stage in San Juan next to her brothers René and Eduardo and sang her first-ever solo in front of a crowd: the legendary 1960s bolero “ Puro Teatro,” by Cuba’s famed La Lupe. Though the romantic acapella, of love and breakup, sounded different from her brothers’ favored reggaeton and hip-hop beats, she floored the crowd, earning raucous applause.
Over the next decade, Cabra would go on to become known internationally as PG-13, the female vocal element of the Latin Grammy-winning group Calle 13. She sang, rapped and danced with her older brothers Residente and Visitante in front of tens of thousands of fans all over the world. But that first experience on stage – Calle 13’s first Puerto Rico show – stuck with her. Singing La Lupe was a moment of transition, she says, when it just “clicked.”
“The song felt tangible, like I could hold it in my hands,” Cabra told me during a recent visit to Univision News in Miami. “I began to want to learn about other artists from that time and I always felt the same way. The songs taught me many things, they transported me.”
Cabra is now “iLe.” And earlier this month, the 27-year-old debuted her first solo album, Ilevitable, an original 12-track glimpse back in time to those vintage sounds, especially the melancholy bolero. The songs on the album express deep emotions. As Cabra says, they “go straight to the heart.”
“We live in a time when it’s so easy to make it seem like everything’s okay, but we all go through tough emotions,” she says. “These songs give you permission to feel vulnerable, to be able to feel pain, and to liberate that instead of letting it build up. To get through it.”
In the midst of a tough moment in Puerto Rico, the album is both nostalgia and solace. The island is reeling under billions of dollars of debt. In Florida, the Puerto Rican community recently endured unthinkable tragedy at the Pulse nightclub massacre. For Cabra, the transcendence of these older Caribbean sounds at this moment in time comes from their emotional rigor and sensitivity.
“If you look at the world, it’s worrying how people get angry so easily, how violence keeps getting worse,” she says. “Being human, understanding one another and being more sensitive to our differences, that’s what these songs can offer. We have to know and love where we came from and protect it together.”
Cabra grew up in Trujillo Alto in the San Juan metro area in a musical family. She played the piano and sang from a young age, always attracted to the vintage recordings her father and grandmother played. Her brother Gabriel was a salsa fanatic, and introduced her to lesser-known classic artists. She began rummaging through record stores, searching for forgotten vestiges of Puerto Rican and Caribbean music history.
When she was 16, during her second year of high school, her brother René asked her to sing “La Aguacatona” for a demo he was working on. Cabra began to take individual voice lessons, and in 2005 joined the nascent Calle 13 project, which soon exploded into international fame.
She began to think about her own album in 2012. Recorded over the last year in Puerto Rico, Ilevitable features some 75 musicians, composers, and arrangers including her brother, sister and father, and her partner Ismael Cancel, her co-producer, who is also the Calle 13 drummer.
Two of the album’s boleros were written by her late grandmother, Flor Amelia de Gracia, who sang and played the guitar (although never professionally), and who inspired Cabra from a young age. On the album, Cabra sings de Gracia’s 1955 bolero “Dolor” with Puerto Rican salsa singer Cheo Feliciano, in one of his last recordings before his death.
The song “Triángulo”, written by her older sister Milena Perez, focuses on a woman who “constantly apologizes for everything.” Cabra put the lyrics to a Mexican-style waltz, which she says has the “dense drama” that goes well with the lyrics’ profound sadness.
The album’s first single, “Caníbal,” is a soulful, jazzy ballad that explores facing one’s fears and ego, and “eating” your darkest parts. The surreal video was launched in May.
Cabra says some of her greatest inspirations for the album were the women who came before her, like her grandmother and mother, as well as classic female singers like Cuba’s Blanca Rosa Gil. After so many years spent singing among men, Cabra says the femininity in her songs is intentional.
“I try to put myself in the place of these women,” she says. “Even if I can’t understand the situations they were singing about, I can still convey those emotions.”
Upcoming tour dates