The Arty Semite

Monday Music: For Uruguayan Pop Star Jorge Drexler, Jewishness Is a Connecting Force

By Sammy Loren

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The Skirball Center, a sober cultural institution on Los Angeles’s ritzy Westside, was unusually alive on January 27. Music journalists, record executives and South American diplomats with an array of Spanish accents — from Argentina to Spain to East Los Angeles — bounced about the room. Along with the requisite contingent of L.A. yentas and Hollywood types, the event brought out an eclectic crowd.

They came for Jorge Drexler. When examining the life and work of the Oscar-winning musician, it becomes clear why such a diverse audience would show up.

Born in Uruguay to a German-Jewish family, 46-year-old Drexler grew up practicing classical guitar. But like others in his family, he studied medicine, eventually becoming an otolaryngologist. Yet music still beckoned, and at the urging of Joaquin Sabina, a Madrid-based singer-songwriter, Drexler left medicine — and Montevideo — for Spain.

“I just did it without thinking about it,” he said in an interview with the New Jersey Star-Ledger. “I doubt a lot about everything, but I didn’t doubt about that.”

He’s lived in Madrid ever since.

“I am very melancholy,” he added in another interview with the Miami Herald. “And I came to this city which has a lot of sun, where people have a natural tendency to express their happiness.”

Indeed, Drexler’s discography reflects the spontaneity, gloom and wonder of the life of a wandering minstrel. Albums such as “Llueve” (1998), “Frontera” (1999), “Sea” (2001) and “Eco” (2004) established his style of mixing together the seemingly disparate traditions of bossa nova, tango, jazz, pop and Uruguayan music.

Drexler’s big breakthrough came in 2005 when he penned “Al Otro Lado del Rio.” Infused with longing and hope and underpinned by a disjointed rhythm section, the song was featured on the soundtrack of “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2005). It was the first foreign language composition to ever win an Oscar.

These days, Drexler is a much sought after composer, having written hits for such stars as Mercedes Sosa, Shakira and Bajofondo Tango Club. He has won Latin Grammys and gigs regularly in Europe and Latin America, playing music from his eight studio albums, most recently “Amar La Trama” (2010).

Yet even with the accolades and international prestige, Drexler remains woefully obscure in the U.S. On his recent tour, his first in the U.S. with a full band, Drexler made only a handful of stops.

Nevertheless, from the adulation at the Skirball Center, you would never know. When the sprite chanteur and his scruffy band skipped on stage, the audience erupted in applause.

The quintet ambled through the lilting music. Rounding out the bass, guitar and drums were an Argentine xylophonist and a Barcelona-born multi-instrumentalist who jumped between electronic beats, keyboards and a musical saw. Throughout the set, Drexler shifted between syncopated vocals to tango to a paean about the Warsaw Ghetto.

Like the diverse audience and Drexler’s own background, his music also takes seemingly disparate themes and mixes them into something fresh and cohesive.

“I think there’s a background in Jewish culture … that leads you to connect to different languages, different cultures, different spiritual and material and emotional worlds,” he commented to the Miami Herald. “We tend to integrate things since we’re moving so much.”

Listen to Jorge Drexler’s Oscar winning ‘Al Otro Lado del Rio’:


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