The Puerto Rican singer iLe does for bolero and other of the ritmos of the Caribbean what a handful of Portuguese and Argentinian singers have done for fado and tango: capturing the lush glory of the past while bringing its sound with ease and relevance into the present. At 28 years, she understands that its happinesses are slippery and its sorrows persistent. What such genres, at their palliative core, do is transfigure the two: make pain lush and loss beautiful. Fados, tangos, and boleros aren’t only songs: they are emotional monuments, lived in recollection; time and age collapse in the moment of the song. iLe, last weekend at the Mercury Lounge, smiled at the end of each song, as though knowing she had made things hard-to-face into a loveliness to be recalled.
The nostalgia she evokes is all the more remarkable given the lyrics to her first solo album, iLevitable, have a surreal edginess. There’s a figurative frankness alluding to sex and the violence of desire, whether in the barely concealed bodily referents of “Triangulo” or the insect imaginings of “Extraña de querer”. The repeated perdón of the former is brilliantly constructed to shift the metaphors from the personal to the abstract. Or perhaps it is not so remarkable, for the old songs, of which she sings a couple, are in their own way challenging. “Dolor”, written by her grandmother (a singer too), is anything but a happy song: pain a constant companion, life a slow act of dying: yet it is impossibly gorgeous, in itself and as iLe gives it voice and her band, which includes brass as well as guitar and percussion, its sound. Songs of her own (she is credited in one way or another on most of her repertory) like “Maldito sea el amor”, “Rescatarme”, or “Danza para no llorar” can scarcely be called happy either; they tap the wellspring of the old songs, sadness tinged with an aesthetic pleasure.
Sometimes the recollection is too great for the stillness that is her natural demeanor, and she is taken by gestures that tear at her center, low and deep. Twice she sank to the floor, sitting or kneeling, and once lay flat on it, singing, the microphone dangling above her like fruit over the lips of Tantalus. No one, despite the sight lines of the Mercury (a standing venue), took it ill that they could not see her in those moments, so necessary was the gesture and expressive the voice.
Most of what she sang was off the album, but there was more, of a contrasting tone. “Vienen a verme”, the theme to the drug-kingpin series El Chapo, she sang with a bright gaze, open-eyed. It’s vivid, referential, and instantly classic. An advocate of Puerto Rican independence, she spoke movingly of the wake of the hurricane, which she endured firsthand, and sang a hymn to her país.
Ileana Cabra, as she is called, the former singer for Calle 13, is profound in her art, a moral force and a human presence. She sings most of the time in repose, lids half-shut, supple as cane. In her face is a feminine regret. She wants never to inflict actually the pain of the song. I might call her restrained except there is no impulse to excess. Her charisma, in turn, is of the quiet sort. She takes the stage as though among friends, the guest we don’t want to leave who’ll never overstay. There was little fuss when she entered and exited; there is something trustworthy in her; she comes and goes because it is time to do so; and we’ll be there when she comes again.