Stranger in a Strange Land

Uruguay's sensitive and itinerant pop star opens up

At what should have been the biggest moment of his career, Jorge Drexler was nowhere in sight. It was Oscar night, 2004, and Drexler's contribution to The Motorcycle Diaries soundtrack, "Al Otro Lado del Rio," was nominated for Best Song. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences board of directors — in all of their waddling wisdom — decided that Drexler, despite having written the song, wasn't a big enough name to actually perform it. Instead the producers opted for an insipid version by, of all people, Spanish actor Antonio Banderas. While Drexler's music was reaching its widest audience to date, the singer/songwriter was reduced to sitting on the sidelines, feigning a smile as he watched Banderas murder his baby.

So when he took the stage to accept his Oscar for "Al Otro Lado del Rio," Drexler knew what he had to do. He leaned into the microphone and, rather than thanking Mom, Dad, and the heavens above, Drexler calmly and clearly delivered an a cappella rendition of the winning song.

"Of course it bothered me, and I'm sure anybody in my shoes would have been bothered by the entire situation," says Drexler. "But it wasn't like I was trying to show anybody up. The only way I would walk away feeling good about myself was if I sang the song. I was just trying to heal a wounded soul — a little bit anyway."

Jorge Drexler: All dressed up and nowhere to sing
Jorge Drexler: All dressed up and nowhere to sing

A virtual unknown in the United States before his bittersweet Oscar experience, the son of German Jews who fled to Uruguay during the Holocaust has risen to fame with achingly poignant songs that largely concentrate on issues surrounding cultural displacement and national and ethnic identity.

Drexler's preternatural talent was obvious at a young age; he consistently studied piano as a child and always had aspirations of becoming a pop star. His parents, on the other hand, had other ideas for his future and pushed him to enter medical school at the University of Uruguay. "I'm always going to be a doctor," says Drexler. "But music is my calling."

Though he is consumed by preparations for his first U.S. concert tour, the 41-year-old Drexler sounds at times uncomfortable with his recently acquired stateside fame. This sort of attention is relatively new to him, and his rise has been a gradual one. Drexler's first two independent albums — 1992's La Luz Que Sabe Robar (The Light That Knows How to Steal) and 1994's Radar — went largely unnoticed. Not until after the release of Radar,when Drexler took the advice of friend and fellow singer/songwriter Joaquin Sabina and relocated to Spain, did his career begin to gain momentum.

He penned a deal with record label EMI and released 1996's Vavien and 1998's Llueve. These albums — featuring worldly mixtures of milongas, zambas, and pop rhythms — garnered good reviews and moderate commercial success, but the ever-restless and nomadic Drexler believed there was still something missing. "I needed to return to my beginnings," says Drexler. "I felt as if I was getting away [from my roots]."

So in 1999 Drexler returned to Uruguay to rediscover his musical heritage. He immediately immersed himself in the traditional Uruguayan styles of candombe and murga. The end result was Frontera, an album that fused traditional Uruguayan sounds with house and drum 'n' bass rhythms. With its more experimental sonic aesthetics, Frontera didn't exactly send the cash registers into a frenzy, but that wasn't the point. "It was like a spiritual cleansing," Drexler says. "I needed it for my own peace of mind."

Meanwhile Drexler's lyrics continued to convey the singer's search for a concrete cultural identity. On the album's title cut, Drexler admits to "Not knowing where I come from/My house is on the border/And borders move like flags."

With his most recent disc, 2004's Eco, Drexler sought to scale back some of the more ambitious aspects of Frontera.Electronic textures still weave in and out of songs such as "Toda Se Transforma" and "Don de Fluir," but the album is generally more organic and spare. The self-descriptive "Guitarra y Vos" even finds the singer trying his hand at spoken word.

But while Drexler may have reverted to a more subtle approach with the album's musical accompaniment, his lyrics continue to explore the realities and cultural shockwaves Latino immigrants routinely experience. On "Al Otro Lado del Rio," Drexler softly coos, "Creo que he visto una luz/Al otro lado del rio/Yo, muy serio, voy remando/Y muy adentro sonrio/Creo que he visto una luz/Al otro lado del rio" ("I think I've seen a light/On the other side of the river/Very serious I continue to paddle/While in my soul I smile/I think I've seen a light/On the other side of the river").

Though the song is ostensibly a literal re-enactment of a scene from The Motorcycle Diaries, it also touches on themes that have been at the forefront of Drexler's lyrics since the beginning. "There is so much of a personal connection in it because I identify so closely with the message," Drexler comments. "I've been down the very same road [of being an immigrant], so I feel a need to make the songs I write reflect that."

 
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