Puerto Ricans pride themselves in being the originators of Salsa and Reggaeton music, but they also pride themselves in being home to the legendary rap group Calle 13, a group who emerged in the early aughts and are infamous for their controversial song lyrics and their independent stance towards Puerto Ricans’ freedom. All of this combined with the very catchy beats and untraditional instrumentals make them the record holders of the most Latin Grammy awards to date. So, it’s no surprise that members of Calle 13 are still creating award-winning music today.
The band’s leader René Pérez Joglar aka Residente released his stunning solo debut album in 2017 with a beautiful documentary film to follow. Meanwhile, his half-sister iLe (aka Ileana Cabra Joglar), previously known as PG-13, just released her sophomore album Almadura following her Grammy-winning breakthrough solo debut, iLevitable. For this new record which incorporates salsa, bomba, plena, and classic Latin instrumentation, iLe decided to let all her emotions out, a "desahogo" as she describes it in Spanish, and I had the pleasure to chat with her about her creative process, her outlook on The Island of Love and the strong, cultural, political and social messages within the new record.
KEXP: Hola iLe! There's so much to talk about. I'd like to start with your take on Puerto Rico right now. It's referred to as the island of love and is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Puerto Ricans are so connected to their history and deeply rooted in their culture. While it's natural for people to leave the island in search of a better opportunity and after a natural disaster, since Hurricane Maria approximately 130,000 people, at least 4 percent of the population, have left the island and that number continues to rise. What are your thoughts on this and how is that affecting you and your art form?
iLe: Well, it's very sad for me. There's always been like a here and there with Puerto Rican's, like forever. Especially a lot of people that go to the states. But since Hurricane Maria, obviously, it feels emptier than we have felt years ago. So, it's a weird feeling now because a lot of things are combined. You feel emptiness in the streets, you feel emptiness in buildings, you feel like you're confused, and the government is managing the situation in a very ambiguous way. It seems dark because the government that is ruling now is part of the party that wants Puerto Rico to be a statehood.
There's not a lot of things that I don't share about the party, the thing is that usually most of the people that are part of that party tend to, how do I say, maybe be too much on their knees, you know, do anything that the United States wants just because they want statehood so badly that they just do anything to be closer to statehood, and it doesn't matter that we have to be humiliated. It doesn't matter what it takes, most of the people that want statehood have that attitude of receiving abuse. I don't know how to phrase it so well in English but, something like that. And you can see that we in Puerto Rico, I think we have always been a little confused about our status, but that has been part of the plan in a way. I think we express ourselves somewhere, even though the majority of Puerto Ricans want statehood, but I understand some people that want statehood don't even know why they want statehood.
I know that we do like a revolution in ways that might be unexpected and art I think is one of them, you can see that even though we have been a colony for so many years, we still maintain our identity and that is something to analyze. The majority prefers statehood like it should be different looking in a way, but there is something about us that we don't want to forget or we don't want to disappear about our own culture and that is the ironic thing about Puerto Rican's I think. That's why we express ourselves through art and through music and for me, that's my tool you know, that's how I manage everything we go through by writing or composing or singing. It's the way that I try to understand things better in my country and in the world as well. We feel a little disconnected to what is happening around us, but thanks to the internet and if you travel, you start to notice that you can find similarities in some situations that also happen in other countries. It's something very complicated.
Do you ever feel the urge to leave the island too?
The urge? No, I never felt the urge luckily. I think that I'm very lucky because I know some people just leave because of commodities but I know that a lot of people leave without wanting to leave. And that's what happened especially after Hurricane Maria, a lot of people left without wanting to leave.
I had a tour after Hurricane Maria in November and I remember being in the airport and feeling that energy, there were a lot of people in the airport and I didn't feel inspiration or anything, I felt sadness, a lot of sadness, and that made me think. I saw a lot of older people leaving, I know a lot of them were taking care of their families and their elder people in the family and they just had to leave to find a way to attend them better, to be with them. But I've never felt the urge to leave the island.
I don't know, one of the things is that I just love Puerto Rico too much. I feel at peace here in a way even though it might be chaotic and yes, sometimes you have your frustrations about how we manage things, but at the same time there's something calm and peaceful to it, so it's a weird feeling but it's something that I can't let go of entirely. But if I've thought about leaving, I'd have to feel calm about it, so maybe just for interests or for something that I would like to do sometime, but I haven't felt the necessity and after Hurricane Maria, I feel it less. So, I think I should be here.
This new album is so beautifully classic with musical elements ranging from bolero to salsa, rumba, bomba, and plena. Meanwhile, the lyrics address current historical, cultural and controversial topics. The title of your new album is Almadura which is a play on the word "armadura," meaning strong soul. Can you explain the significance of this title and how it came about?
Well, once I connected with the concept of the album I started thinking about the musicality and the first thing I thought was that I wanted it to be very percussive. I wanted it to have its own pulse and for me, that is something that helped me a lot and it took me to the ambient that I wanted in each song.
So, in this album particularly, I think most of the music came first then the lyrics. Once I started to give the idea to my team, that is basically my sister Milena, my brother Gabriel and Ismael that is my producer of the album and myself, we started brainstorming and while the songs were being born, you know, and they started to listen to the first songs and everything, that's when the armor came along and the protection and the keeping our memory alive and learning to take care of our culture, our history and ourselves and our human race and everything.
That's when the armor started to be in the brainstorming ideas and then suddenly, it was what we hold on to, we started thinking more ideas but the armor was the one that clicked with the songs and what the concept was all about. So, we went there and then suddenly we started to think about a visual image from that armor idea and then suddenly more songs were being born and then the idea of the cover came out. So, it was like everything started blending little by little while the album was growing.
The song "Temes" or in English "you fear", refers to sexual abuse and repeats the phrase "why do you fear me?" It's so vulnerable and such a pretty song musically with such a thought-provoking perspective on a difficult subject. What inspired you to write this song?
Well, obviously this album is just like a desahogo, how do you say, when you let yourself out – all your emotions – and especially about what is going through me personally and how do I receive what surrounds me. And now I'm feeling something that I have always felt, but now with this album, I have the necessity of writing about what bothers me about our society. And well, the women's situation is something that is part of our history and it's something that I think about all the time, and every time I think we are closer to change, at the same time something happens that we feel so far away from it and it's a weird feeling because it takes a lot of psychological work for us to see it clearly.
For me, it's something so basic. It's just looking for a way to understand each other more, to understand our differences, to appreciate our differences, to recognize our capabilities even though we have different capabilities – not only with women, with men, but as a whole. We tend to underestimate children as well and their own capacities. It's something that we don't acknowledge as much, that we do have to do something about, like with our children, I think that's the start of it. It has a lot to do with our education, our lack of education in our society, we have a lot of ignorance unfortunately and that translates to everything, to every difficult situation that we go through. So the women situation is one of them, so I just started to let myself go with what I was feeling, at the same time I wanted to try to put myself in a situation that I've never been through, luckily, but even though I have never been through that, it doesn't mean that it's something that couldn't happen to me as well.
I started to look up news and stories about women that have suffered and that are not with us anymore and that have gone through so many horrible things that I can't even imagine, but I started to put myself into that and I started writing. Puerto Rico, as well as the rest of the world, is suffering from these atrocities, I just wanted to be defiant, I had a lot of anger when I was writing these songs so I didn't want it to be too poetic, I just wanted it to be direct and defiant to patriarchy itself.
The song "Odio" or "Hate" has a pretty graphic music video to accompany it that depicts the government cover-up of the murderous events that took place in Puerto Rico on July 25th, 1978 known as the Cerro Maravilla Massacre. Can you summarize what went down on that day and why you chose to shed light on it?
Well the song, it's about hate itself, like the hate that we are living today and also the hate that we have lived through the years. But the video is presenting an example of hatred, and a lot of ideas came out while we were working on the video, but we remembered about the Cerro Maravilla Massacre that is something that was very famous in Puerto Rico by that time in 1978. But because of our lack of education in schools, a lot of people from my generation and younger don't even know that this happened, so it's something that, it terrifies me because we should never forget the things that happened in Puerto Rico, that's what makes us stronger and makes us understand our present to work towards a better future.
If we don't understand our past, it is very difficult to understand ourselves, and that's why it was important for us to present, to recreate this situation that happened in 1978, where two Puerto Ricans that wanted independence for our country, they were very young and they met this other young guy that seemed to be very brave and also seemed to be part of the independent party and they looked up to him, they didn't know that he was undercover. They all say that this whole thing was part of his plan and he was very young as well, so they trusted him, and it was part of the plan to kidnap a taxi driver so they could take them to these communication towers, and they wanted to burn those towers to make an independent statement. But then, what they had in the car and everything, didn't seem to create a fire, so it was weird. But what they didn't know was that when they went to the Cerro Maravilla, where those towers are, there was an emboscada – I don't know that word in English, a lot of policemen trapped them, an ambush! Sorry, I forget the words!
So there was an ambush and there was a lot of shooting and the undercover policeman got hurt, but then the policeman took him away and that's when they tortured and then killed these two young independent kids, for no reason at all. And then suddenly, the United States government wanted to cover up this story so that's why the United States is part of this situation that happened. It's not until 1983 that they open up the investigation that was televised all over the country and that's why it became so famous and most of the policemen were in jail but, it's still a little unsolved in a way, but they killed the undercover agent. A lot of questions come along, but it's something that's in suspense, the thing is that a lot of people don't know that this happened, so that's why for me it was important to recreate this situation, so it's never forgotten, in a way.
Do you find that whole thing symbolic in any way, of Puerto Rico? Maybe with new meaning and relevance now?
Yeah totally, I mean, nowadays it's easier to forget everything, we have a lot of distractions so we've become more indifferent to what we've been through and for me, it's like, transcending is a different thing, but forgetting and being indifferent, it's not the way for me. That's where people take advantage from us, that's what's happened everywhere, but in Puerto Rico being a colony of the United States and being so dependent from them, it's as if we don't have any control at all of what we do. We don't. Are we going to permit that? For me, it's not logical. And especially with our Puerto Rican attitude that we are so proud of ourselves.
It's ironic at the same time, we're so proud of what? At the same time, we are letting our country go and it's something that doesn't make sense for me. But that's why it's important to remember what we have been through, and I know that a lot of people don't even know what happened here because it's not something that we know. I mean, the little that I know, I learned it because of my family, not in my school. So it's something that even if you bring it up to a teacher, that is not something that teachers want to talk about as much unless you have a special teacher that believes in teaching that, but that is very weird because it is not part of the system.
Luckily because of my sister's dad, we could have a meeting with the lawyer that did the investigation of Cerro Maravilla, but if it wasn't for him, we couldn't find enough information about this, and this was one of the most famous. So, imagine other things that we've been through that are not so famous. There's not enough information anywhere, so it's like a necessity to bury our memory, but we cannot allow that. And it's like a reminder not only of the situation of Cerro Maravilla, but everything that we've been through, we should never forget, and it's something that is also translated universally to every country's situation.
Almadura was co-produced by your longtime partner Ismael Cancel and includes your siblings, as you mentioned, Melina Peres Joglar and Gabriel Cabra as creative directors. It also features the legendary pianist Eddie Palmieri as a special guest on the track "Déjame Decirte". How did the Palmieri collaboration happen?
Well, it was crazy; it was something utopic. It's something that I dreamt to do a long time ago, I think since the first album, but it's something that you don't think could happen because you know, Eddie Palmieri has such a long history that you don't feel close to, so it took a while to connect with him because he's Puerto Rican but he lives in New York. So it was complicated and we started to try the connection and everything, so once we made it – well, Ismael actually did that – I was more into "this is not going to happen", so he tried very hard until we made the connection and it was amazing.
He recorded his part in New York while I was in Puerto Rico, but for me, the thing that he liked the song and he wanted to be part of it, it made me even happier. I know he's someone very strict and I know that if he didn't like it, he wasn't going to do it. So that was something that scared me also in the process, but it made me so happy that he liked it and that he recorded it freely, something that I always prefer. I was scared that he wanted a script, the notes written, but then he told us that no, he wanted it to be improvised and in the moment, and for me that was even better because it made the song feel more real and more raw and more live, and in salsa you always have to feel alive!
It was something that I enjoyed a lot, so when I listened to what he recorded, I was so excited and I can't even believe it, Eddie Palmieri is in my album. And then after that is when he gave us the idea of doing this interlude to this song, it was a composition that he did two years after his wife died. And that's why this song, the composition, is called "Mi Novia", "My Girlfriend" and so it's a very beautiful arrangement that we didn't know the album needed, so everything came together perfectly, and I feel so grateful.
It's amazing, that song is so beautiful and what an honor to have him on the album. Do you think you'll do a tour over here?
On July 10th, I'm going to play in New York at SummerStage and then on July 12th I'm going to be in Washington at Ivy City Smokehouse, and then on August 17th, I'm going to play in Puerto Rico at Museo de Arte of Santurce. So that's what I have for now. The first show is going to be on SummerStage, so we're rehearsing a lot, but little by little I'll be announcing the new dates on iLevitable.com or also in the social media and Instagram and Twitter and everything.
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