Ileana "iLe" Cabra, a/k/a PG-13, the fierce femme vocalist of Puerto Rico’s world-renown alternative/hip-hop/rock band Calle 13, joined the band when she was only 16, but she was already an old soul. “When we did our first concert in Puerto Rico,” said iLe, “I sang a solo version of La Lupe’s song ‘Puro Teatro.’ It was kind of a moment of transition for me.” It may not have seemed that way at the time, but her debut nostalgia-soaked collection of alternative ballads Ilevitable, was inevitable.
iLe, who began her association with Calle 13 by jumping into a verbal sparring match with her brother René (Residente) on the band’s first recording, “La Aguacatona,” has been levitating across stages with the band for over a decade. But with Ilevitable, a 12-song collection of meticulously produced tracks, iLe has created an instant classic that reveals a thoughtful and innovative artistry.
The album’s first single, “Caníbal,” is a fitting example of iLe’s eclectic tastes and ability to combine an older, more romantic point of view with the darkness of the new millennium. Its melancholy guitar riffs and 60’s girl group piano chords—played by Eduardo Cabra (Visitante)—immediately draw the listener into iLe’s unique sensibility. The song’s lyrics, climaxed by syrupy-scary violins, describe someone who is consuming herself with doubt and regret.
“It’s a little bit like an internal battle of the ego,” said iLe about her first-ever composition. “When you feel everything is wrong, and your dark side takes over.”
Recorded over several months in local Puerto Rican studios, Ilevitable features upwards of 75 musicians, composers, and arrangers including iLe’s brother Eduardo, her sister Milena, her father Joey Cabra, and her partner Ismael Cancel, her co-producer, who is also the Calle 13 drummer. “We’re all connected,” said René. “We constantly stimulate each other. Ileana grew up in that artistic atmosphere that’s why she matured so quickly.”
ILe’s late grandmother, Flor Amelia de Gracia, who sang and played guitar and composed songs in the 1950s and 1960s, wrote two of the songs on the album, “Dolor” and “Quién Eres Tú”. “She gave me a lot of feedback about everything,” reminisced ILe. “Especially because I like to imitate people, she would say, ‘don’t imitate! Find your own voice!’ Eventually I came to recognize the importance of that as my singing evolved.”
De Gracia’s composition “Dolor” (Pain), recorded in 2012, was the first song made for the album and the only one outside of the main recording sessions, which occurred over the last year. It featured a collaboration with the late great salsa sonero Cheo Feliciano, with arrangements by iLe’s uncle Joe Pujals. “Joe knew my grandmother and cared for her a lot,” said iLe. “When we sang it together it was very emotional, but Cheo passed away and was never able to hear the final version.”
“Quién Eres Tú” (Who Are You) is based on a man iLe’s grandmother was attracted to by just hearing his voice, without being able to see him. With its classic horn arrangements, written by Louis Garcia, making it sound straight out of Tito Rodríguez during his bolero phase, “Quién Eres Tú” becomes a showcase for iLe’s emotional vocal power—it’s a haunting description of the feeling of disbelief one has during the first flush of a romance.
Three of the most riveting songs on Ilevitable were written with iLe’s sister Milena Pérez. “The things that Milena writes are always in the moment, they just come to her,” said iLe. “The first one, ‘Triángulo,’ she had written while living in New York, and the other two just came to her during the process of making the record.” Performed as a Mexican ranchera/waltz, “Triángulo’s lyrics—“There’s a hole in me/That unravels me/Until I become no one,” allow ILe to revel in melancholy self-reflection.
“Extraña de Querer,” (Estranged From Love) another of Milena’s compositions, uses a two-chord piano rhythmic structure to tell a Kafka-esque story of two bodies touching in insect-like ways, with Charlie Sepulveda’s Louis Armstrong-like muted trumpet providing the counterpoint to iLe’s delicate croon. She finds herself in a similar space when singing the English-language song “Out of Place,” which was co-written by her father, Joey Cabra. With its soft-psychedelic stylings and Southern California slide guitar, the song feels like a time capsule, part of a soundtrack for a forgotten ‘70s road movie.
Ilevitable also features a song from Puerto Rican alternative rock legend Fofé called “Maldito Sea el Amor” (Love be Damned), as well as a 60s New York style bugalú, and a mambo. The latter two reflect iLe’s part-time hobby of salsa DJ, an activity that allowed her to do the deep-diving in record bins that she did to immerse herself in the feel of Puerto Rican and Latin American 60s and 70s rock-pop ballads. Javier Santiago, who runs the Fundación Nacional Para la Cultura Popular in San Juan, took iLe under her his wing, helping her discover almost forgotten singers like Gloria Mirabal.
“It amazed me that such a young woman could ask me questions about some figures that she never experienced herself,” said Santiago, who found a resonance between her voice and Mirabal’s. “She’s an old lady in the body of a young girl,’ said Ilevitable recording engineer Ramón Martínez.
Apparently iLe’s classic-sounding voice drew strong approval from Bob Dylan, who had been ringside when she sang the Puerto Rican national hymn at the beginning of a prize fight between Floyd Mayweather and Miguel Cotto in 2012. Dylan described iLe's singing as "beautiful... heartfelt... and moving."
Ilevitable is the first of what should be many crescendos for a singer like iLe, who is just beginning to figure out how to combine her immense vocal talent with a creative curiosity that will produce many memorable moments. They’re moments that are grounded in the past, but somehow manage to capture where we’re at now.
“I feel that today, we’re in a moment of kind of forgetting, like everything has become more distant,” said iLe. “A lot of music these days, while very well made, is quite empty. It doesn’t speak to me at all and doesn’t take me anywhere. I like music that transports you to a place or a moment or something. That’s what I’ve tried to achieve with this album.”