By Don Macica. Photos by Charlie Billups –
I’ll start by getting out of the way something that every article written about Ileana Cabra mentions: that she is the sister of Puerto Rican duo René Pérez & Eduardo Cabra, better known to the world as Calle 13, and that she has been singing under the name PG 13 with the massively popular group since the very beginning. Her music as a solo artist couldn’t be more different, though. Up until seeing her Chicago debut at the Millennium Park Summer Music Series last Thursday evening, I figured that the main relevance of that family connection was that when she launched her solo career, she instantly had the backing of music industry giant Sony, for whom Calle 13 has made a lot of money over the last decade.
I now see that all those years sharing a stage before thousands with Residente, one of the most charismatic performers in music, has rubbed off on her, because from the moment iLe strolled on stage, all eyes were on her and few strayed away for even a moment. She did it not through a manufactured sense of excitement, but rather by drawing the audience in with every gesture and with the power of her voice. This was a performer that clearly knows what to do in front of an audience.
She is also very sure of what she wants to express through her art. Her sense of the history of tropical music, especially from the 6os and 70s, is profound, but she doesn’t dabble in imitation. Rather, she locates the emotional core of longing that has embodied such forms as bolero, salsa, ranchera, tango and even American sources like girl-group pop a la Phil Spector or the ballads of Linda Ronstadt, who drew from her own Mexican heritage to inject sincerity and meaning into her string of her hits.
Her debut album, Ilevitable, is a survey of all of these influences, but this isn’t a historical retrospective. The sound may embody earlier eras, but with production that seems to simultaneously honor and mock its excesses; swelling strings, echo-laden percussion, overly punchy mambo-style horns. These dramatic flourishes lend a dark undercurrent, not unlike the way filmmaker David Lynch scores his hallucinogenic films, or, to use another cinematic example, the sometimes silly but always broodingly compelling James Bond themes, from Shirley Bassey through Adele. This is especially true on Caníbal, a song that describes how self-doubt can consume you.
On stage, the drama lies elsewhere. It’s just her and a quintet of backing musicians. All excess is removed to better focus on the artist and her songs.
And those songs! The family connections run much deeper than her famous brothers. Her sister Milena Pérez is the co-writer of three. Her grandmother, Flor Amelia de Gracia, wrote two (three, if you count the encore). Even her father, José Cabra, co-wrote one, the English language Out of Place. Ilevitable is very much a family affair, and Ileana Cabra made sure that everyone in the audience understood that as she introduced each song.
In concert, iLe replaces the maximalism of the album with the intimacy of subtle gesture infused with drama. She sits on the stage for her grandmother’s Dolor, a classic bolero. She dances with abandon, but not exaggeration, to uptempo rave-ups like Rescatarme and Te quiero con Bugalú. Extraña de Querer, were it not in Spanish, would be at home in a 60s era French café. The tango-infused Maldita sea al amor is belted out, aimed at the very last row of the cheap seats, yet she is nearly stock-still, head slightly bowed, for the ranchera and flamenco inspired Triángulo.
The evening ends with a simple and achingly beautiful duet for guitar and voice, the only song of the night not on Ilevitable. It’s another of her grandmother’s songs, No te detengas. Millennium Park is a huge place in the midst of a bustling city, but for a few precious minutes it’s as hushed as a midnight bedroom conversation.