Ismael Cancel

Setting Sights

Ismael Cancel

by Ilya Stemkovsky

When the rhythm ace with the enormously popular yet unclassifiable Puerto Rican band Calle 13 began working on singer iLe’s much-anticipated solo debut, he found that a no-rules approach worked best.


As part of the Puerto Rican urban/hip-hop band Calle 13, drummer Ismael Cancel mixes up an eclectic stew of beats and patterns, from reggaeton to funk with lots of points in between. The band’s resident female vocalist and rapper, Ileana Cabra Joglar, has now stepped out on her own, with a new name, iLe, and a new sound that’s decidedly different from the high-energy music of Calle 13. Her new record, iLevitable, is a throwback to Latin music’s past, and Cancel acted as a producer, songwriter, and drummer for the sessions.

On display is a kinder, gentler Cancel—some sweet brushes here, an understated conga part there…. Throughout he provides perfect accompaniment for the plaintive ballads and emotional vocals featured on the album. “It was an ongoing process from the other groups I’ve been in,” Cancel explains. “This project has been about approach. I could have come in like a drummer or percussionist, but I didn’t. I didn’t even know if I was going to be playing drums on the record. At first iLe had some sampled drums, but there was a song that needed organic drums, so I recorded them.”

Such attention to detail has served the songs well, with minimal flash but enough craftsmanship, and even some modern production touches, to make things percussively interesting. “The album was us experimenting from start to finish,” Cancel says. “We didn’t have a plan, and things changed along the way. But we still got there in the end.” With Cancel, it’s about the journey and the destination.

MD: With Calle 13, you’re bringing a dance-oriented style of drumming. Here with iLe, you turn your attention to subtle rhythms. Was it an easy transition to play quieter music behind a more subdued vocalist?

Ismael: That was the hardest part. Calle 13 has huge audiences at festivals, and I have to play with a certain energy and vibe. We wanted to put dynamics in the songs, but the level I was working at was totally different. With iLe, we started to rehearse and I could feel the difference in the way we would have to perform—all of us as a band, not just me on the drums. We’d have to adapt and make that sound bed for Ileana. I have to be a lot more delicate with every stroke and move I make.

MD: Did you always have this bag of styles with you? Or did you have to do some research and shedding to prepare and learn to execute tracks like “Rescatarme”?

Ismael: We did do research. We wanted it to feel old. It was a mix of music we had heard before and some stuff that we had to listen to and study a little bit to get there. “Rescatarme” was one of the more difficult songs on the album. Also, my grandfather used to listen to a lot of that music when I was growing up, and my mother has said that she would play salsa and older music when I was in her belly.

MD: In addition to songs that fit clearly within traditional Latin styles in terms of rhythm and production, the album also features songs like “Caníbal” and “Out of Place,” on which you take a more contemporary approach. Was it a conscious decision to make it more modern?

Ismael: When we started working on the album, we really didn’t have a master plan. We just wanted to do an album where we could show different variations of Ileana’s voice. She worked on “Caníbal” on her computer and passed it to me, and we came up with a 1960s influence, but also with an alternative thing so it didn’t stay ’60s. So it was a matter of constructing each song like a piece, and hopefully when the album was finished all the songs would blend together. And they did, because Ileana’s voice made that happen.

MD: How did you juggle your role as a percussionist and a producer?

Ismael: When we started working on the album, we approached a lot of musicians. I was never supposed to be the only drummer. We even recorded some other drummers. I knew I wanted to do some [playing] and be involved, but I wasn’t tied to that. Sometimes we would get a conga recording down before it was even clear to us what we wanted. So at the end, I had to record percussion on some songs myself. It wasn’t about virtuosity or getting the best drummer.

We produced it ourselves, and we had to discover what Ileana wanted with each song. As the process went on, I’d record the timbales on one track because I knew what needed to be done. So as drummer, percussionist, and producer, it was all one. If it was necessary for me to record, I did it. And if I needed to call someone else, I did.

MD: What are you doing to get those percussive sounds in “Triángulo”? The “clacking” sound on the backbeats is cool, and the way you keep it in waltz time during the 5/4 section is interesting.

Ismael: Ileana came up with the idea of a Mexican waltz, so we tried to figure out an idea of which way to work the percussion. We had a friend who is very good at programming, and we wanted something to form a groove but not overpower the music. That sound [on the backbeat] is a sample from a Japanese percussion kit we experimented with. In the live show I use the rim of the snare to get that sound. And I also had the idea of three batá drums played with mallets that forms almost like a click. So the drums, without being that present, give the song a modern feel.

Ismael CancelMD: What was the gear you used? Old gear with new mics? New gear with old mics? Old cymbals?

Ismael: I tried a lot of stuff. We used Tycoon percussion and Taye drums with Sabian cymbals. But we used some felt to muffle drums when we needed to. We recorded timbales very roomy. But mostly it was new gear that we worked to sound old-ish. We didn’t have a guide. We had to figure it out in the moment. If it sounded too new, we would put a shirt or a towel on the drums. Our principal recording engineer, Harold Wendell Sanders, was great. We felt like we were going to school. We also worked very hard with mixing engineer Noah Georgeson, who did outstanding work.

MD: What’s your live setup for iLe, as opposed to Calle 13?

Ismael: I’m going to break it all down with iLe, so her voice can be on top. With Calle 13 I’d have a mini timbale, two snares, and a lot of cymbals. Now I’ll go with a ride, two crashes, and one snare drum. I’ll also play some brushes. And I change sticks from song to song, though I prefer lighter sticks. I’ll play timbales on a couple songs and conga on another.

MD: Have you been doing anything specific to improve your brush technique?

Ismael: In my early days I did practice brushes. But it’s been almost ten years, so I’ve checked out some videos just to see what people are doing. I recorded all the brushes on the album, and it wasn’t that bad. But live it’s a whole other thing.

MD: So is Calle 13 on a hiatus now?

Ismael: We didn’t break up. Everyone wanted to do something else for a little while. It’s just a matter of when everyone wants to get together and play. It’s a family. We’re focused on iLe right now. But we’ll do something in the future.


Tools of the Trade

Cancel plays Taye drums, Sabian cymbals, and Tycoon percussion, and uses Vic Firth sticks and Remo heads.