One month after the release of her debut album iLevitable in June, Ileana Cabra officially began her career as a solo performer with a trio of New York City shows as part of the 17th annual Latin Alternative Music Conference, or LAMC.
The first set was part of an acoustic showcase, two songs per artist. iLe was accompanied on guitar by Bayoán Riós. It was a teaser since another performance was scheduled for later that night. The acoustic set took place at S.O.B.s, a medium sized venue near the West Village where, at times, the crowd noise was simply too much.
The second performance was at the Highline Ballroom. Full band, longer set. iLe would also be presented with the LAMC Discovery Artist award.
Crowd noise wasn’t as much of an issue. The five-piece band included two guitars, keyboard, percussion, and bass. Again, it was just another teaser.
The next night iLe would be performing her entire first album at S.O.B.s. But the second show was a glimpse of a what many consider iLe’s effusive talent as a performer–a visceral component also found on her album.
This ability to convey strong emotions through her voice is an act of interpretation; a concept, like many of the genres found on iLevitable (bugalú, bolero, big band, etc.), that harkens back to a golden age of vocalists who were celebrated not necessarily for the songs they performed, but the manner in which they brought them to life.
Beyond vocal technique, the hype surrounding iLe’s debut as a solo performer centered on her emotional range–an empathy that extends past the limits of her personal experience as a 27-year old musician from Puerto Rico.
The third performance began around midnight. There were no opening acts beforehand. It was only iLe, her band, and the collection of thirteen songs that make up iLevitable, i.e. her discography thus far.
Ileana took the stage and began with the last track of the album, “Aurora and José.” After whistling through the short instrumental, “Caníbal”, the first single off iLevitable, introduced the audience to iLe’s unmistakable voice.
The band then moved on to “Quién eres tú” followed by “Que mal que estoy.” Much of the sound was still being drowned out by the loudness of the audience, which further truncated the dynamics of the performance. Though up until that point, iLe sang with more of an inward quality, often closing her eyes throughout each song.
But the mood eventually began to shift, with “Maldito sea el amor” being the first song of the night to require a harsh, rather than playful or melodramatic, tone. The band also came to life with an surprise uptempo shift in “Triángulo”.
By then, Ileana was dropping to the floor of the stage as she sang “Dolor,” which carried the song in absence of Cheo Feliciano’s signature voice on the record.
The audience responded accordingly as iLe began to command the stage; dancing, trembling, conspiring with the music. It was like a form of possession, a ceremony that requires four or five songs to be offered in sacrifice before she felt comfortable onstage.
For many seasoned performers, being onstage is like flipping a switch. Lights, camera, action, and the stage is yours. For iLe, this is more of a process. The audience doesn’t just disappear because the band starts to play.
Ileana has been branded as the old soul; mostly by friends, family, and collaborators who conflate the idea with her knowledge and appreciation of older genres of music. But it also can also mean that she is trying to keep pace with the world by setting her own–her live performance no exception.
Near the end of her set, she sat down again to perform “Extraña de querer,” cradling the microphone in the crook of her arm, as if it were a child. To the left of the stage, two trombone players readied their instruments to join the band for the closing number, “Te quiero con bugalú.”
The night was coming to an end and suddenly, iLe and her band, along with the new horn section, became an orchestra, boisterous and confident. Ileana had evolved in her stage persona having committed to her slow and steady aesthetic.
Ileana has had signature moments onstage in the past. Her 2007 and 2011 Latin Grammy performances were crucial in establishing her reputation as a live performer. But it’s obvious she’s more than a featured vocalist. Now that the song and the stage belong to her, she can be introverted as she performs, stepping out of character whenever she feels compelled by the music. It’s a much more organic experience for that reason.
The encore was another song, “No te detengas”, written by her grandmother (two are featured on the record). She sang accompanied only by the guitar, but unlike the acoustic showcase, the moment belonged to iLe.
All photos by Mai Nolasco