When you have only 15 minutes for a phone call with the Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler about his decades-long career, you better make it count.
You have all sorts of questions, but the one you've always wanted to ask feels so 15 years ago. That's when Drexler's melodic number, "El Otro Lado del Rio," won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for the 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries. The movie chronicles the young adult travels of Ernesto "Che" Guevara from Argentina and Alberto Granado from Brazil on a road trip through South America's great social contrasts. The song, which translates to "The Other Side of the River," reflects hope for a better world.
You want to ask him how it felt that one glamorous, glorious night when Oscar programmers deemed him too unknown, too foreign to perform his own song. During the telecast, Oscar presenter Selma Hayek pointed out the Academy's first Spanish-language song to be nominated for the award before announcing Antonio Banderas and Carlos Santana would perform the song live. When it came time to announce the winner, Prince called Drexler's name, and Drexler stepped onto the stage to politely accept the award by singing a few sweet a cappella lines of his song.
In addition to winning the Oscar, Drexler has earned five Latin Grammys, including one for his 2017 album, Salvavidas de Hielo, and another for the song "Telefonía." But he has no interest in talking about which awards or career milestones are his favorites.
“That’s like talking about which part of your body you'd like to keep," says Drexler, who began his career as an ear, nose, and throat doctor.
Of those three organs, his fans would probably say his ear is the most important — or perhaps his throat — because Drexler's decades of tunes are consistently melodic, reflective, and playful, with a sweet, unwavering voice.
In 1996, Drexler's ear for music and aptitude for songwriting prompted veteran Spanish troubadour Joaquín Sabina to invite him to relocate his career to Madrid, where he settled and is now raising a family.
Another thing you shouldn't ask him about is what makes his generation of artists (Gen X) different from Sabina (baby boomer) because he'll quickly tell you he doesn't see himself in any one era.
But what seems to be the most awkward question is the one he likes best: What is it like to be an artist from a country that most people think is merely a cultural extension of its neighbor, Argentina? Is it a bit like combatting the arrogant notion that Canadian culture is mostly just an extension of the United States?"
"Yes, it's true," he says. "It's very true that the music of Canada was put to the side of the music of the United States because that's a bigger, more influential country.
"Uruguay's identity is subtle and moderate, just like its landscape. We don't have forests or mountains," Drexler says.
Bordered by South America's largest nations — Brazil and Argentina — Uruguay undoubtedly shares many cultural features with both, Drexler says. Like Brazil, Uruguay has a strong African heritage, and like Argentina, some of that evolved into milonga and tango. One thing Uruguayans like Drexler like to tout is that their tiny country of 3.5 million people has produced a large number of famous poets and writers, including Mario Benedetti, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Horacio Quiroga.
All of these features define Drexler's work.
"I believe I've developed my artistic self in the image of Uruguay," he says.
Because Uruguay was so far off the radar of the commercial music industry, Drexler says he never felt pressured to conform to cookie-cutter styles or messages. On his latest album, Salvavidas de Hielo, he touches on everything from migration and climate change to love and gratitude. And like many of his previous albums, it's a potpourri of emotive melodies and playful rhythms that leave listeners gently swaying somewhere between the Iberian Peninsula and a carnival in Bahía or Montevideo.
Drexler's voice is clear but gentle, his lyrics resourceful and poetic. He complements them by collaborating with other "alter-Latino" artists, such as Mexico's Natalia Lafourcade on the album's soulfully stringed title track, Chile's Mon Laferte on the wistful love song "Asilo," and Mexico's Julieta Venegas on the funky, Brazil-inspired "Abracadoras."
It's the kind of fusion he likes — and would like to see more of when performs in Miami next Friday.
"The more it looks like Rio de Janeiro, the more I like it," Drexler says. "That's a city that has its parties, sambas, and carnavals but also has its Tom Jobin, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Chico Buarque."
Jorge Drexler. 8 p.m. Friday, March 13, at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $30.45 to $187.95 via arshtcenter.org.
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