iLe Sings Her Grandmother's Songs And Speaks Out Through Her Music

Nov 12, 2017

Since she was 16 years old, Puerto Rico's Ileana Cabra has been trading slick bars in musical sparring matches with her brothers, René Pérez Joglar and Eduardo Cabra Martinez, better known as the Grammy-winning hip-hop duo Calle 13.

But now, a decade later, she's struck out on her own as iLe. Her debut album, iLevitable, which came out in May 2016 and won a Grammy for best latin rock, urban or alternative album, is filled with timeless bolero ballads and folk-inspired songs.

Currently on her very first solo tour, iLe spoke with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about singing her grandmother's songs, addressing sexual harassment in her music and what it's like writing songs in English. Hear the radio story at the audio link and read on for an edited excerpt.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: You're from Puerto Rico, and you were there in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. How's your family now?

iLe: My family is OK. But most of the country, if not all, is very affected, unfortunately.

We've seen about 100,000 Puerto Ricans leaving the island because of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Are you worried about what that may mean for the cultural heritage of the island, which is so important and diverse and different?

Yeah, I'm worried for many things. I don't judge, at all, people who left because the priorities that the government are giving are so insensitive and so terrible and it makes me actually want to vomit. We are not used to recognizing our strength that we all have as Puerto Ricans, but we are now doing what we can, and that's the beautiful part of it — that we are working as an independent country without even realizing. I know a lot of people are living with pain and I know some people that have lived many years outside of Puerto Rico are now coming back to empathize, you know, because we are still Puerto Ricans and we need to feel ourselves near each other. And that's [why] I'm excited about this tour, actually, to reconnect with Puerto Ricans that live outside Puerto Rico and remember ourselves that we need to stay together.

Your music seems to be a family affair for you; you performed with your older brothers in Calle 13. And you wrote a couple of the songs on this album with members of your family. One song, a bolero ballad called "Dolor," was written by your grandmother — and recorded with the late Puerto Rican singer Cheo Feliciano. It doesn't sound exactly like something I'd be used to you singing.

But it is normal for me. I learned this music since I was a kid, thanks to my family; my grandmother, my dad, my brothers and sisters. I became very passionate. I love all different kinds of music but I really loved my own music as a Puerto Rican and as a Caribbean. It's a very important part of our musical history and I don't want it to be forgotten. I want it to keep being part of us even though it transforms itself to the time we are now, but still, it has to be part of who we are.

Tell me about your grandmother.

My grandmother, Flor Amelia de Gracia, she loved music. She sang beautifully, she played the guitar and she wrote songs and she had a scholarship when she was very young to study in a university outside of Puerto Rico in music. But her father didn't let her and she became a home economics teacher in a school in Puerto Rico. She kept writing and we learned her songs, thanks to my aunt and my mother, and also by herself when she sang it to us. And now it's all very different; this is the first time her songs have been published in this album and it makes me so emotional every time I hear the people singing her songs. It's a very special moment.

There's another song on your album called "Rescatarme," or "rescue me." Tell me about it.

It's actually rescuing myself. Because it's a song that I wrote thinking about the women in my family and the women that surround me and noticing that we're still struggling in some basic things and we, as women, we still don't recognize the importance of our own place. Because the years go by and everything starts to normalize, and violence and aggression are normal to people.

Sexual harassment is something that I emphasize more in this album. The subtleties that we — because they're little — we tend to minimize the abuse but the abuse is still there even though it might seem small. We should not let it pass by because it's not okay. And that's where we need to talk about it, where we need to speak out. And for me, it shocks me that we're almost in 2018 and we're still seeing that it's heavy.

You sing one song on this album, "Out Of Place," in English. Why did you want to have an English track?

I was practicing writing in another language, but I didn't think that I was going to like what I was writing. Suddenly, it was a great exercise because maybe you let go a little more of yourself [and] say things that in your own language you may be afraid to say.

Spanish music is having a moment in America with hits like "Despacito" and "Mi Gente." What do you think is driving that?

I don't know. I [would] prefer that these songs have a different message, but still I know that Latin, now it's a cliché. People have this idea of Latin Americans and I know people here in the States like that, but I don't share it completely. I think different.

Do you think that music portrays a stereotype of what Latinos are?

Yes, yes [laughs]. I think we have so much to say, that it's like losing an opportunity. If you have a chance that people are really listening to you, you should say something else. It is very important for us, especially as Latin Americans, to speak out of our history, of how do we feel, even though you're afraid that people in the States won't like it — it doesn't matter. It's important to be heard and that, for me, is the main purpose of art. I value it because of that. Because it's my tool to work out things in life and learn to appreciate the difference we all have as human beings and that's what I want to listen more.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA AGUACATONA")

ILEANA CABRA: (Singing in Spanish).

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

That is Ileana Cabra performing in a musical sparring match with her brothers, the hip-hop duo Calle 13.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA AGUACATONA")

CABRA: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She started performing with the band when she was just 16 years old. And now, a decade later, she's striking out on her own. Cabra has a debut album, "Ilevitable," for which she won a Grammy. And she's currently on her very first solo tour. She joins us now from Texas Public Radio in San Antonio, Texas. Good morning.

CABRA: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you're from Puerto Rico, and you were there in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. So I want to start by asking you, how's your family?

CABRA: My family is OK and - but most of the country, if not all, is very affected, unfortunately.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. We've seen about 100,000 Puerto Ricans leaving the island because of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Are you worried about what that may mean for the cultural heritage of the island, which is so important and diverse and different?

CABRA: Yeah. I'm worried for many things. I don't judge at all people who left because the priorities that the government are giving are so insensitive and so terrible. And it makes me actually want to vomit. It's terrible. We are now used to recognizing our strength that we all have as Puerto Ricans, but we are now doing what we can. And that's the beautiful part of it - that we are working as an independent country without even realizing.

I know a lot of people are living with pain, and I know some people that have lived many years outside of Puerto Rico are now coming back to empathize, you know, because we're still Puerto Ricans and we need to feel ourselves near each other. And that's what I'm excited about this tour, actually - to reconnect with Puerto Ricans that live outside Puerto Rico and remember ourselves that we need to stay together.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You seem to enjoy music as a family affair. You performed, as we mentioned, with your older brothers in Calle 13, and you wrote a couple of the songs on this album with members of your family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ILEANA CABRA SONG, "DOLOR")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One song, a bolero ballad, was written by your grandmother and recorded with the late Puerto Rican singer Cheo Feliciano. Let's take a listen to "Dolor."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOLOR")

CABRA: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Que lindo dolor. That doesn't sound exactly (laughter) like something I'd be used to you singing.

CABRA: But it is normal for me (laughter). I learned this music since I was a kid thanks to my family, my grandmother, my dad and my brothers and sisters. And I became very passionate. I love all different kinds of music, but I really love my own music as a Puerto Rican and as a Caribbean. And it's a very important part of our musical history, and I don't want it to be forgotten. I want it to keep being part of us, even though it transforms itself to the time we are in now. But still, it has to be part of who we are.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOLOR")

CHEO FELICIANO: (Singing in Spanish).

CABRA: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about your grandmother.

CABRA: My grandmother, Flor Amelia de Gracia - she loved music. She sang beautifully. She played the guitar, and she wrote songs. And she had a scholarship when she was very young to study in a university outside of Puerto Rico in music. But her father didn't let her, and she became home economics teacher in a school in Puerto Rico. And she kept writing, and we learned her songs thanks to my aunt and my mother and also by herself when she sang it to us. And now it's all very different. This is the first time her songs are being published in this album, and it makes me so emotional every time I hear the people singing her songs. It's a very special moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to play another song from your album, "Rescatarme."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESCATARME")

CABRA: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I love the lyrics of this. It's a good, old-fashioned, you know, revenge song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESCATARME")

CABRA: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rescatarme. Rescue me. Tell me about this song.

CABRA: It's actually rescuing myself because it's a song that I wrote thinking about the women in my family and the women that surround me and noticing that we're still struggling in some basic things. And we as women - we still don't recognize the importance of our own place because the years go by, and everything starts to normalize. And violence and aggressions are normal to people. We're almost in 2018, and we're still seeing that. And that's what shocks me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF PLACE")

CABRA: (Singing) Can you feel what I'm feeling...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You sing one song in this album in English. Why did you want to have an English track?

CABRA: I was practicing - you know? - writing in another language. But I didn't think that I was going to like what I was writing. And then, suddenly, it was a great exercise because you - maybe you let go a little more of yourself because you think liking another language is very different. And you maybe say things that in your own language - you maybe are afraid to say them. I don't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF PLACE")

CABRA: (Singing) My heart, it is out of place. And what do you have to say?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask you a question. You know, music in Spanish is having a moment in the United States. "Despacito," "Mi Gente." What's driving that, do you think?

CABRA: I don't know. I prefer that these songs have a different message. But still, I know Latin. It's - now it's a cliche (laughter), and, like, people have this idea of Latin Americans. And I know people here in the States like that, but I don't share it completely. I think different (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wait, you think that it's a stereotype? That music portrays a stereotype of what Latinos are?

CABRA: Yes. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CABRA: I think we have so much to say that it's like losing an opportunity. Like, people - if you have a chance that people are really listening to you, you should say something else. It is very important for us, especially as Latin Americans, to speak out of our history, of - how do we feel? Even though you're afraid that people in the States won't like it, it doesn't matter. It's important to be heard. And that for me is the main purpose of art. And I value it because of that - because it's my tool to work out things in life and learn to appreciate the difference we all have as human beings. And that's what I want to listen more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TE QUIERO CON BUGALU")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ileana Cabra's first solo album is "Ilevitable." Thank you so much for joining us.

CABRA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TE QUIERO CON BUGALU")

CABRA: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.