Hurricane winds, radio transmissions, power generators, and other recordings made on battery-operated equipment during the first year after Hurricane María’s devastating path through Puerto Rico.
“To remember. To never forget that experience. To bring homage to everyone that suffered through the precariousness, and at the same time show how it could become fuel for creation.”
That’s what José Iván Lebrón Moreira is thinking about the driving forces behind his new project, Ciénaga. The young Puerto Rican artist, known in the local scene as drummer for post-punk trio Las Abejas and for his incredible solo records as Moreira, assumed a new musical identity for Isla Eterna, an album influenced by ambient music and fueled by experimentation. The record was launched as a digital download with help from Puerto Rican independent label Discos Diáspora on the eve of the one-year anniversary of Hurricane María’s devastating path through the Caribbean.
“Isla Eterna” is an audio experience informed by natural forces beyond our control. It is the fractured memory of a collective experience. It is an invitation to introspection, one year after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane María left Puerto Rico in dire straits – with thousands of hurricane-related casualties, the second-largest recorded blackout in the history of the planet, and a long series of insufficient, corrupt, and misguided government relief efforts.
The project was conceptualized in between these storms and developed during the blackout, mixing the sounds of hurricane winds, radio transmissions, power generators, and other recordings made by José Iván with compositions made on battery-operated equipment. The resulting songs revisit life during those trying days with melancholy and reverence.
Puerto Rico Indie spoke to José Iván Lebrón Moreira about the experience of recording “Isla Eterna” and the challenges brought forth by Hurricane María.
Puerto Rico Indie: What is Ciénaga? Why separate this project from the rest of your musical output?
José Ivan: The project shows a more experimental side and is born out of my love for ambient music. I wanted to have a separate platform in order to explore other possibilities of sound and leave my solo work as Moreira as something exclusively for my vocal work, and more traditional, accesible, and danceable compositions.
When did the idea for Isla Eterna materialize and what can you share about its production process?
I started work on it right after Hurricane Irma, early in September 2017. And at first, I took it as a personal exercise. I wanted to approximate the sounds of the feelings we felt as we lived through that type of meteorological phenomena. After María, that’s when I decided to turn it into a full album, as I found myself with more free time to continue composing songs and recording sounds [during the blackout] – and I saw I had enough material.
The record includes sounds of Irma’s winds, the night after Irma, María’s winds, recordings of WAPA Radio 680AM transmissions, since it was one of the only available media outlets after the second hurricane… The song “9:20” includes a recording of the moment me and my partner saw how the winds blew the zinc roof off our neighbor’s home. We were lucky that the winds didn’t hit us directly on the side with most windows in our home, so throughout the hurricane we were able to leave some of them open and look at what was happening, as well as record the sounds without major complications.
Why do this type of documentation? Why do you think it is important for us to reflect on what has happened?
I think I wanted to make a non-traditional retrospective of what occurred. I also feel like I wanted to study myself, to see how I could translate these experiences into sound. There were so many feelings felt during the process… The daily shores, the constant battle to get water, gasoline, food… The lack of basic utilities and services, the exodus of family and friends, the destruction… Taking some time to compose music was therapeutic and I am grateful I was able to do so, because I know a lot of people where not as lucky as I was.
How would you describe your experience during and after the storms?
I was very lucky, like I said. I didn’t lose any family, nor did I lose many valuables to the storms. But I did live that same chaos that we all did during María’s aftermath. I didn’t have electricity until late December, nor water service until much later after the storms.
I wasn’t able to work for four months, since I am a swimming instructor, as well as a musician, and without water or electricity it was impossible to do any work. My bank account went down to zero, and I was forced to search for another job to make ends meet, one I wasn’t able to leave until this past April.
With no electricity for months, how were you able to work during this time?
That was the biggest challenge. During the hurricanes, I made sure I had my laptop fully charged and recorded just as the storm was at its peak. Musically, most of the record was done in a digital BOSS-864 recorder that is battery-operated, as well as a Roland SP-404 sampler. Songs like “Baja señal” (Low Signal), “Reconstruye” (Reconstruct), and part of “Sobre las muertes” (About the Deaths) started life in that equipment. Other songs that were on my laptop I would work on after recharging its battery at a nearby Burger King, the one next to the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. A lot of people would go there to charge their equipments, buy water and food, try to use the Internet, etc.
“Hato Rey bajo agua” (Hato Rey Under Water) is based on a guitar recording I did on my phone during Hurricane Irma. All the radio recordings I sampled with my phone as well. “El ojo” (The Eye) I worked on at my parent’s house, thanks to a generator they had, that you can hear during part of the song. And that’s how I was able to elaborate these pieces during that time. It was not until recently that I was able to invite some musician friends who also experienced the storms to contribute to the recordings. I added Juan Botta’s saxophone to “Augurio” (Augury) and Shanti Lalita’s cello to “Sobre las muertes”.
What do you wish for people to take away from the experience of listening to “Isla Eterna”?
The record is best experienced in its totality, from beginning to end. It is designed for listeners to take the plunge and experience a narrative through sound. And although it does alude to some bad experiences, I’d like for the listener to leave with a feeling of hope.
I am a true believer in the notion that after destruction there is always the possibility for a new beginning, be it in social settings, or in personal and internal processes.