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In 1951, a trip on an old motorcycle up the spine of the Andes by an Argentine medical student and his companion sparked a succession of life-changing events that reverberate to this day throughout the world. Fifty-four years later, a Uruguayan doctor-turnedcomposer and his part in telling the epic story of Ernesto "Che" Guevara's transformation from a disaffected youth to intellectual leader of Fidel Castro's Cuban revolt has sparked another revolution. Only this time, the fireworks have been ignited by music, not bullets.
"It was overwhelming," Jorge Drexler recalls of the unexpected and unprecedented acknowledgement of his talent as a composer and singer when his song "El otro lado del río" won the Oscar for the Best Original Song at the 2005 Academy Awards ceremony. Never before in its seventy-seven-year history had a composition sung in Spanish captured one of the world's most coveted awards for music. Instantly, the Uruguayan musician went from being virtually unknown to U.S. music and movie fans to a media darling who was suddenly being lauded as an artistic genius by the popular media.
"Ary Barroso, the famous Brazilian composer, was nominated in 1944, but it was for the English translation of his song 'Rio de Janeiro' from the movie Brazil," Drexler says. "And there were several other songs from Europe that have been nominated. But a song has never before won when sung other than in English. I'm very proud."
It might appear that the forty-one-yearold native of Montevideo rocketed from out of nowhere to overnight Oscar fame. But Drexler's journey to the spotlight is a tale of many small but important steps in a career that's been noteworthy since his first forays into music just a decade ago. Indeed, his evolution from a cult figure among aficionados of sophisticated Spanish pop music to Oscar champ lends an intriguing storyline to his personal and professional odyssey-one that seems spun from the celluloid world itself.
Since 1992, Drexler has recorded seven albums. His latest, Eco, contains the Oscar-winning track as an added, fanpleasing bonus. Throughout his career, the composer has maintained a keen interest in film writing, having contributed original music to the soundtracks of such acclaimed Spanish-Argentine films as Antigua, Vida Mia, and Botín de Guerra. And, he's no newcomer to awards, having scored nominations for Argentina's prestigious Premio Gardel and the Latin Grammy.
Drexler was born into a cosmopolitan household in the Uruguayan capital in September 1964. His father was a German of Jewish ancestry who escaped the Holocaust, fleeing in 1939 with his family to Uruguay. His mother's family boasts a Portuguese, Spanish, and French lineage. He started playing piano at the age of five, then switched to the guitar at age ten. When he began his university education as an eighteen year old, he maintained a passion for music-making while studying medicine. He earned a medical degree in 1982 and was an ear, nose, and throat specialist until he abandoned medicine in 1995 and moved to Madrid to pursue music full time after producing his first solo album in Montevideo. Drexler is married to Ana Laan, a Spanish native of Swedish and North American heritage. The two share a penchant for Grafting melodically intriguing songs endowed with poetic lyrics and dressed with spare acoustic arrangements shaded with accents of electronica and have appeared on each other's recordings.
Although most of Ms artistic triumphs have been scored far from the land of his birth, Drexler maintains close associations with a small cadre of Uruguayan and Argentine musicians who've been his close associates for two decades. One, Juan Campodonico, the co-founder of the famed nuevo tango group the Bajofondo Tango Club, produced his hit album Eco. And Drexler keeps a close eye on his small country's rejuvenated film industry. Whisky, a 2004 film by directors Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, which won the Grand Prix at the 17th Tokyo International Film Festival, is, in Drexler's opinion, "a masterpiece."
However, achieving a distinctive national style in a small land surround by large nations with particularly rich cultural traditions can be difficult, as Drexler well knows. "I think about music geographically," he muses. "You can understand the cultural background of Uruguay by looking at the map. You'll see the smallest country in South America bordered by the two largest-Brazil and Argentina. That defines, in some way, the influence of these two countries in all aspects of our life, from astronomy to music. But also, you can understand why we struggle so much for an identity."
Drexler grew up listening a lot to the music from those two countries. But when he was a teenager, he also sampled music from the rest of the world as well-from the Beatles to pop music from the U.S. "But when I started going to college," he recalls, "it seemed like Brazilian music fit more with what I wanted to say as a musician than music from Argentina. So, I really turned to Brazilian music, and it's been a great influence on me. I greatly admire, for instance, Caetano Veloso. I played a lot of his music. But I appreciate Argentine artists like Astor Piazzolla, Atahualpa Yupanqui, and Luis Alberto Spinetta-they also influenced me a lot."
However, he fiercely defends the Uruguayan point of view when it comes to long-simmering disagreements between his homeland and neighboring Argentina, and points with pride to examples of Uruguay's successes in the cultural export they both share, tango. Perhaps the best known tango in the world, "La Cumparsita," he points out, was written by Matos Rodríguez, an Uruguayan. "And the song became an icon in Argentina," he chuckles in amazement. "I think it's very mixed up!" Another ongoing sore point is the birthplace of tango legend Carlos Gardel. "He always said that he was Uruguayan," Drexler states. "It's been a great discussion, because in Argentina they say he was born in Toulouse, France, and immigrated to Argentina. But my mother was born in Tacuarembó, Uruguay, and everybody knows who Gardel's father was."
The decision to move to Spain was a step the young composer knew he had to take-it was only a question of when. "Whether you make bricks or music, sooner or later you need to go abroad to expand," he explains of the reality of living in such a small nation. After all, he points out, Gardel, Uruguay's most famous native son, migrated to Buenos Aires, where he became the king of Argentine tango. "I get
1 the feeling," the composer reflects, "that Buenos Aires and Montevideo are really the same city, only with a river in the middle. But everything there is ten times bigger. I had to go out of Uruguay to build my career, and if I wouldn't have gone to Spain, I certainly would have gone to Buenos Aires, just like Gardel and other important tango singers have done over the years."
One of the opportunities that awaited him in Madrid was composing original music for film and television. "I like writing with that kind of direction," Drexler explains, "when you are given a certain amount of space where you need to define things." Life in urbane Madrid also exposed him to new trends in pop music, which he has gradually absorbed into Ms own style. His affinity for Brazil's new spin on 1960sera bossa nova, with its roots in European techno and its electronic samples and beats, has led to collaborations with such Brazilian artists as Celso Fonseca and Marcos Suzano. "Brazil is so close," he explains. "We speak Portuguese, watch Brazilian television programs, and buy Brazilian products in the store. I started playing bossa nova because I thought it was a natural part of my repertoire." His understated vocal style, polite demeanor, and fondness for conservative attire have even drawn comparisons to Brazil's bossa monarch, Joío Gilberto.
Drexler's sudden fame, however, has produced one unpleasant side effect-having to submit to dozens of routine interviews by young journalists who might be hard pressed to find tiny Uruguay on a map of the world. "What I enjoy the most is performing and recording," Drexler acknowledges while revealing the strain of empathy that's present in many of his tunes. "Even though doing lots of interviews is a difficult part of my life today, it's much easier than the work that most people do," he says. "I spent lots of nights in hospitals, where people really worked hard, and there was a lot of tension. While we are speaking, people are doing really difficult and tiring jobs. So, the artist who complains about doing interviews should think again: I've done tougher things before."
Vaivén (Virgin España)
Llueve (Virgin España)
Frontera (Virgin España)
Sea (Virgin España)
Eco (Warner Music Latina)
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