Ileana Cabra’s Music for a Revolution

Ileana Cabra’s Music for a Revolution

Taking It Back

Ileana Cabra’s songs for a revolution.


On July 25, 1978, Puerto Rican independence activists Carlos Enrique Soto-Arriví and Arnaldo Darío Rosado-Torres took a taxi driver hostage and ordered him to drive to Cerro Maravilla, a mountain in central Puerto Rico. They planned to sabotage a TV tower there to protest the imprisonment of several Puerto Rican nationalists—an idea that had been encouraged by Alejandro González Malavé, whom the two men believed to be a fellow organizer. In fact, González Malavé was an undercover cop, and when the pair reached Cerro Maravilla, the police were waiting. Soto-Arriví and Rosado-Torres were ambushed and murdered execution-style as they begged for mercy on their knees. They were 18 and 24, respectively.

The Puerto Rican and US Justice departments initially held that the officers acted in self-defense, but later investigations exposed a possible conspiracy and a cover-up by both governments. Last year, when Puerto Rican singer Ileana Cabra (aka iLe) began composing her second album, Almadura, the police executions of Soto-Arriví and Rosado-Torres were on her mind as she began revisiting the glaring moments of injustice that Puerto Rico has experienced as a US-controlled territory, all while grappling with how her home has been brutally mismanaged and neglected by the Trump administration since Hurricane Maria hit.

Just after the 40th anniversary of the murders, Cabra released Almadura’s first single, “Odio” (“Hate”), along with a video that retraces the Cerro Maravilla killings in bloody detail. The song sets the tone for the entire album, as Cabra urges, “Que el odio se muera de hambre” (Let hatred die of hunger). The line is delivered evenly, building to a climax in which she unleashes her rage over a bomba rhythm, a percussion-driven style that originated with the island’s African slaves in the 17th century.

Bomba has a particular relationship to Puerto Rican resistance. According to scholar Salvador E. Ferreras, colonial authorities restricted bomba in the 1800s because they feared the dance form could be used as a distraction to disguise slave rebellions. After Hurricane Maria, it was especially important as an acoustic form of music, which people could play with limited electricity. “Odio” becomes a thundering protest, and it reflects Almadura’s bellicose spirit. Even the album’s title is a symbol of defiance. “Armadura” means “armor” in Spanish; however, the pronunciation of the letter “r” in Puerto Rico often makes the word sound like alma dura, which translates roughly as “hard soul” or “strong soul.”

Such a forthright release isn’t a total surprise coming from Cabra, who was an outspoken figure in the sweeping July protests that led disgraced Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló to step down. The now 30-year-old singer got her start as a part-time vocalist for Calle 13, the often political reggaeton and hip-hop duo made up of her two older brothers, René Pérez Joglar and Eduardo José Cabra Martínez (also known, respectively, as Residente and Visitante). In 2016, Cabra released iLevitable, a surprising solo debut filled with old-school boleros and traces of boogaloo. Her voice, deep and baroque, was a time warp to the Spanish-language singers of the 1950s and ’60s, and the album’s ability to pack a bit of nostalgia into contemporary pop won it a Grammy in 2017.

But the stakes have changed completely on Cabra’s sophomore effort. iLevitable was primarily interested in romance and longing, and the tender songwriting showed off the emotive qualities of her voice. In a post-Maria world, the idea of heartbreak means something different in Puerto Rico; the Category 4 hurricane inflicted infrastructure damage that led to the second-largest blackout in recorded history, an official death toll of 2,975 (an adjusted number, after the Puerto Rican government reported a mere 69 deaths), and political unrest as residents demanded more from their representatives. On Almadura, Cabra returns to the traditional arrangements and genres that she featured on her debut album, only this time she uses the sounds of the past to help her reckon with the horror of the present.

While Cabra’s messages are incisive, she doesn’t mention the United States or the US government by name in her lyrics. Still, her songs teem with references to oppression and colonization. On “Contra Todo” (“Against Everything”), she sings about a stolen territory that wants to be free: “Soy el terreno invadido / Naturaleza robada / Soy pensamiento indebido / Grito de voz silenciada” (I am the invaded land / Nature robbed / I am a dangerous thought / A screaming voice silenced). Her voice is steady as she launches into the declarative chorus, “Quieren verme caer / Pero daré bien la talla / Atravesar la muralla / Voy contra todo pa defender” (They want to see me fall / But I’ll stand tall / Breach the wall / I’ll go against everything in order to defend).

Her frustration isn’t limited to how Puerto Rico has been ravaged by external forces. Much of the album centers on Puerto Ricans’ finding strength among themselves, a theme Cabra detailed while speaking to Rolling Stone last year. “It makes me feel a little sad that we as Puerto Ricans are still waiting for someone or something to help us,” she said. “We need to recognize that we can help ourselves, together; not only as Puerto Ricans but as a human race.” Ideas of self-sufficiency, solidarity, and autonomy surface again on the album, as Cabra questions the island’s internal problems.

On “Ñe Ñe Ñé,” which roughly translates as “Blah Blah Blah,” Cabra takes on the Puerto Rican debt crisis. The island’s $123 billion bankruptcy—comprising approximately $74 billion in debt and $49 billion in unresolved pension liabilities—was spurred by lax Wall Street policies, the powerful influence of investment banks, and a lack of federal regulation that encouraged Puerto Rico’s destructive practice of borrowing money through the sale of faulty bonds. These economic woes are a result of Puerto Rico’s status as a US territory; however, Cabra briefly examines the role of ineffectual leadership on the island and the way it contributed to the catastrophe. “Endeudados hasta el ñó / Con gente que no es de aquí / Después de acabar con tó / Ponen cara de yo no fui,” she sings. (Indebted to the eyeballs / To people not from here / After finishing everything off / They act innocent.) Later, she fumes, “Nadie se limpie las manos / Que aquí todos son culpables” (No one wash your hands / Because here everyone is guilty”). The line is prescient in light of Rosselló’s resignation, which came after leaked messages among the then-governor and his advisers showed him mocking Hurricane Maria survivors, using homophobic language, and calling a female politician a “whore.”

Cabra also wrestles with Puerto Rico’s epidemic of violence against women, which led to mass protests at the end of 2018—a year in which 51 women were murdered, nearly half by their domestic partners. On a slow-brewing bolero called “Temes,” she reframes aggression as a symptom of male fear and fragility; the song, she says, was guided by her belief that “‘machismo’ is…a weak and horrifying reaction of fear.” An accompanying video sees her appearing in the role of a woman who has just been raped on the street. Lying on the pavement, she wonders coldly why she’s an object of fear when “Todo lo que hago, es un pecado / Pero si tú lo tienes todo controlado” (Everything I do is a sin / But you have it all under control). The delivery is subtle, but Cabra’s lyrics are a sarcastic echo of the excuses that society makes for gender-based violence. “Why do you fear me?” she sings. “What are you afraid of?”

She is a careful writer, and her methods are less showy than those of, say, her former bandmate Residente, who joined forces with the rapper Bad Bunny to mobilize Puerto Ricans and boost the public demonstrations that led to Rosselló’s ouster. Both rappers had tackled island politics in their music and on social media. Issues of gender violence and post-Maria anxieties surfaced in Bad Bunny’s debut, X .100Pre; notably, he encouraged his people to stay optimistic on “Estamos Bien,” an anthem of hope that has drawn comparisons to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” During the protests, he teamed up with Residente for “Afilando los Cuchillos,” or “Sharpening the Knives,” a ferocious rebuke of Rosselló that featured Cabra’s writing and vocals in a chorus that urges Puerto Ricans to come together.

Cabra’s tone, on both “Afilando los Cuchillos” and Almadura, evokes history and takes inspiration from the island’s pro-independence thinkers from previous generations. Lyrics like the ones in “Contra Todo,” with their image-driven natural descriptions and calls to fight back, seem to descend from the literary styles of revolutionaries like Juan Antonio Corretjer, whose epic poems were integral to the island’s socially conscious and politically free-thinking neocriollismo movement. Cabra’s writerly approach isn’t as boisterous or as outwardly provocative as the work that Calle 13 became known for, but it’s not any less stirring.

If there’s one place the new album falters, it’s in its diversity of sound. Cabra’s debut established her nostalgic approach to making music, and hearing her revisit boogaloo and bolero can feel repetitive the second time around. Songs like “Invencible” and “Sin Masticar” use colors we’ve seen her paint with before—they’re reminiscent of “Te Quiero con Bugalú” on the first album—and they keep the record from making any bold leaps into contemporary pop sounds. Almadura includes a major collaboration with the legendary salsa pianist Eddie Palmieri, but despite the impressive musicality of their partnership, it’s a slice of the album that only proves how much Cabra chases the past more than she looks forward.

Almadura could have done more to link tradition to the present by blending the roots-oriented sounds that Cabra loves with the radical pop experiments exploding across all genres of Spanish-language music. The producer Trooko has sprinkled electronic beats onto the project, but they’re often eclipsed by heavy classical arrangements. A breakthrough comes on “Tu Rumba,” a song built on a slowed-down bomba rhythm. Toward the end, a burst of synths begins to pulse through the melody, like a transmission from another planet. The production introduces a flash of modernity that could have taken the project further and made it as innovative as it is emotional. A sense of the current moment seems especially lacking, given the timeliness of the thematic content.

Still, Almadura is a proud and sturdy record of resistance, serving as the wind-up before Cabra unleashed her fury on the global stage amid Puerto Rico’s historic political uprising. Cabra throws herself into the cycle of trauma and healing and in the process reaches profound new depths as both an artist and a witness of history. The album becomes not only a mirror of Puerto Rico’s courage and resilience but a testament to Cabra’s own power as well.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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