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Ileana Cabra’s Music for a Revolution

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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.

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