Review: iLe at Pilsen Fest

By Don Macica – Photos by Charlie Billups –

Ileana Cabra returned to Chicago for her second show in a little over a year, and although you might think that she had nothing new to say, you could not deny that she has found a more deeply expressive way of saying it.

Her last visit, a 2016 headlining appearance at Millennium Park, was remarkable in its ability to transform that vast space into an intimate place for whispered conversation. It came on the heels of her debut album, Ilevitable, and consisted almost exclusively of songs from it. Ilevitable went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Latin rock, urban or alternative album, an impressive achievement for a new artist.

A year later, those same songs were presented once again, but in the intervening year it feels that iLe and her excellent backing band, now expanded modestly to include a pair of richly burnished trombones, have lived in them and become familiar with the knotty emotions buried deep within.

Pilsen Fest, with its explicit mission of showcasing Latino music and art in the context of cultural resistance in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, couldn’t be more different than the pristine setting of Millennium Park. In this way, it was perhaps a more appropriate setting for iLe’s art. It certainly provided an audience more attuned of the complex emotional nuances of Latin music.


That may have been a contributing factor to the powerful nature of iLe’s Pilsen Fest performance. Up close, you can read the impassioned meaning of each song in her face, posture and gestures. Some of this, of course, is a seasoned stage performer at work, but the role of the artist is to use the skills at their command to convey deeper truths. Above all, iLe remains committed to her truth as a woman from a family of strong women, navigating the joy and heartbreak of life, love and sexuality.

Two songs in particular demonstrate how thin the line between them can be. In both Rescatarme and Te quiero con Bugalú, iLe takes time to dance while the band propels a Latin groove behind her, but the interpretation is one of agony in the former and confident abandon in the latter.

It occurs to me as I write this that I have spent quite a few words on iLe’s visual presentation, but none on the equally powerful voice that accompanies it. There might be no better use of it than in Triángulo, a delicate yet moving ranchera that shifts from quiet hesitancy to heartbreak, drawing the audience in with every syllable. The weight of pain in Dolor, a song written in 1955 by her grandmother Flor Amelia de Gracia, is so great it drives her to the ground as she sings it. By contrast, she invests real power in the dramatic Canibal that you can feel all the way in the back.


The songs from Ilevitable are interrupted but once at mid-concert for a song about Puerto Rico. iLe introduces it by speaking of the island’s colonial status and the fear that many there have of being free of dependency. It occurs to me that the same condition applies to the women who populate her songs: Struggling to be free and happy, yet held back by fear and self-doubt. I also think of Pilsen itself, a community that feels under siege by commercial forces looking to colonize it with high priced apartments and expensive restaurants. “Yo soy boricua,” she sang, “Pero también soy un patriota.”


The show ends with the rousing Te quiero con Bugalú, conjuring New York City of the 1960s, and the encore is another song written by her grandmother, No te detengas, a simple, achingly beautiful showcase for guitar and voice.

The lack of new songs was a bit surprising, but Ilevitable was reportedly years in the making. Something tells me that Ileana Cabra has little interest in being a pop star, and thus no incentive to crank out a new song to satisfy the marketplace. Besides, there seems to be plenty of inspiration left to be mined from the ones she already has.

iLe: Locating the heart of the matter

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.