When iLe–also known as Ileana Cabra Joglar–set out to put together her sophomore effort, she wanted to challenge herself. “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone in this record and explore other things, other sides of myself and let myself go with that feeling,” she said while reflecting on her new album Almadura. “I felt a need to express the way I’m perceiving things in a more direct way.”
At first, she adopted a deliberate approach to songwriting, producing the song “Odio” (Hate), an explosive meditation on the spread of negative emotions immortalized by a video, released last summer, that captured a sad moment in Puerto Rican history. But then came Hurricane María, the terrible category 5 storm that left ILe’s beautiful island in shambles, looking for answers. “The hurricane was something really raw and impactful. We didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have water, and it made us question a lot of things.”
The combination of ILe’s desire to investigate new feelings and perspectives and the sudden sense of urgency brought on by Hurricane María formed the emotional basis for Almadura, and also helped coin its title. A play on words that translates into “strong soul,” Almadura also hints at how Puerto Ricans pronounce their “r”s, because “armadura” is the Spanish word for armor. This 12-track album is a statement about protecting the island and culture of Puerto Rico, but it’s also about the armor women need to survive increasingly precarious times.
The challenge faced by iLe and her partner, percussionist Ismael Cancel, in co-producing Almadura was formidable. How would they transcend the brilliance of Ilevitable, ILe’s first solo effort, with its swirling passion and poetry, and continue to allow her to emerge from her dynamic run with Calle 13, which won a total of 24 Grammy and Latin Grammy awards? The answer was fairly simple: iLe would continue to refine and expand her vocal and lyrical brilliance; she would trust the percussiveness of her singing, as well as the talented hands of Ismael; and add to the core of their homegrown ensemble of musicians, including for two tracks, the participation of salsa/Latin jazz legend Eddie Palmieri on piano.
It’s the cultural and historical importance of Palmieri and various other influences that iLe has nurtured over the years that Informs Almadura and helps it make the leap into new territory. “When you listen to poems by Juan Antonio Corretjer sung by Cheo Feliciano, or the lyrics of Tito Curet Alonso, you get this narrative of our history,” said ILe. “When I listen to Maelo [the classic Puerto Rican singer Ismael Rivera], I feel like I’m on the streets of Santurce. All of that makes me feel grounded, and then I connect them a little with trap, with reggaetón, with what’s happening now musically in Puerto Rico.”
The sound ambience of Almadura, designed with considerable input by Residente collaborator Trooko (a/k/a Jeff Peñalva) is spare yet seductive, as melodically moody as the album’s sharp rhythmic edges. Rather than conform to what ILe calls the “purity” of traditional Caribbean rhythms like Cuban son and rumba and Puerto Rican bomba and plena, the album fuses elements of those rhythms with an electronic soundscape that is emblematic of how Latin music is evolving. For the millenialatino audience it speaks to, Almadura fulfills the desire to fuse the fire of ancestors with new digitial technology of music making.
A strong example is “Tu Rumba,” a slow-ish Puerto Rican bomba awash in subtle interplay between congas, electric keyboards, and ILe’s double-tracked voice, teasing the listener with its lower register. “I don’t know if your rumba goes with my mambo,” she sings, playing a word game identifying the baseline vibes of a first encounter with the names of the classic genres of Afro-Cuban music, “but you have what I’m needing.” It’s an intimate meditation on the nature of physical attraction and the doubt we can have when trying to express it.
ILe splits her time between examining questions about sexual identity–as on the ethereal “Invencible,” which describes how bursts of hormonal energy can blur the line between masculine and feminine—and the painful reality of post-Hurricane Puerto Rico, exemplified by “Ñe Ñe Ñe,” a plena about the island’s overwhelming financial crisis. In the aching bolero “Temes,” she inhabits the scary truths of the endemic problem of violence against women.
And then there’s Eddie Palmieri. While being awed and astonished by the masterful performance of the brilliant Nuyorican pianist who almost single-handedly invented salsa, ILe delivers a stunning cha-cha/bugalú fusion that is Almadura’s unexpected highlight. Together with “Mi Novia,” an instrumental interlude that Palmieri wrote in honor of his wife after her passing a few years ago, this intergenerational meeting of musical minds almost makes you want to hear an entire album based on this collaboration.
Like its predecessor, Almadura is a “family” affair, featuring the participation of ILe’s brother Gabriel Cabra, local musicians like vocalist Kianí Medina, bassist Jonathan González, and the amazing pianist Julio Boria, and ILe’s sister Milena Pérez Joglar, who wrote and composed the haunting “De Luna,” which ends the album. Its lingering refrain, “How beautiful to see you accompanied by something that I’d left you,” seems to sum up the emotional chord Almadura is trying to strike.
“It’s a song that keeps you company, and there’s something about it that takes me away,” said ILE. “Milena always has that in her songs, they trap you, and from there it takes you by the hand suddenly you’re there like hypnotized, and you’re in that world and we don’t know how it will end up being but we hope it will be a place of understanding