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A songwriter’s dream has disappointing end

Times Staff Writer

Jorge DREXLER awoke with the fateful song already in his head.

The night before, the Uruguayan singer-songwriter had read the script for “The Motorcycle Diaries” for the first time since director Walter Salles invited him to write a composition for the movie. Drexler recalled going to bed early, moved by the story of a formative journey across South America taken by Ernesto Guevara as a young man, before becoming the iconic revolutionary the world would come to know as Che.

The next morning, the introspective troubadour started recording the tune that had emerged so lucidly from his sleep. By lunch, he had finished the song that would take him from relative pop music obscurity to the global stage.

Drexler’s “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” (On the Other Side of the River) is nominated for an Oscar for best song, a category that rarely includes a foreign-language entry. This year, lightning struck twice with two non-English numbers among the five nominations. The other is the French song “Look To Your Path” (Vois Sur Ton Chemin) from “The Chorus.”

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Drexler’s work enjoys the additional distinction of being the first Spanish-language song ever nominated in Oscar’s 77-year history.

“That is something worth celebrating in itself,” said Drexler, 40, by phone from Barcelona, where he was performing. “I think we’re seeing a process of opening to Latino culture beyond the common stereotypes. Cultural imperialism still exists, but the system has cracks and suddenly something totally unexpected sneaks through.”

Drexler’s mellow voice evokes the low-key, literate style of, say, a James Taylor or Pedro Guerra, perfectly suited to his occasionally wry, philosophical lyrics. His music is a distinctive blend of roots music from his native Uruguay, with Euro-electronica traces and a strong modern pop sensibility. Still, some say Drexler is too sophisticated and, as a result, overlooked by a domestic Latin music industry that puts a premium on commercial imports.

Although Drexler released seven studio albums, composed scores and songs for four previous films, earned nominations for a Latin Grammy and an MTV Latin America award, he never had an album released in the U.S. -- until now.

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Warner Music Latina is rushing out his latest CD, “Eco,” with the Oscar-nominated song as a bonus track.

“For me, this is one of the most gratifying outcomes of having worked on the film,” he says. “I’ve been fighting for many years to get my records released in the United States, and I’m very happy it’s finally happening. Obviously, this has given my career a very big boost and a lot of prestige. I’m delighted.”

Drexler is far less thrilled about the way his song was packaged for tonight’s telecast. The singer says the show passed him over as performer though he sang, played, co-produced and arranged the song for the soundtrack.

That was his first disappointment. Then the show’s producers asked pop singer Enrique Iglesias to perform the song instead, a choice as jarring as asking Donny Osmond to do Bob Dylan.

Drexler says he expressed his displeasure directly to Oscars producer Gil Cates. The conversation was cordial, the singer recalls, but fruitless. Cates did not return calls for comment.

To Drexler’s satisfaction, Iglesias declined the offer, in what the Oscar nominee calls “a gesture of great gentlemanliness.” Spanish actor Antonio Banderas is now scheduled to sing the song on the show, backed by another household name, guitarist Carlos Santana.

“It grieves me,” says Drexler. “I understand that this is a television show and it has its own standards, but I gauge my actions by a different measure. I have no concept of ratings or marketing, and the people who make those decisions speak a different language than I do.”

Drexler took heat recently when he drew parallels during an interview between himself and Che Guevara, who hailed from Buenos Aires. The singer noted he was also born to middle-class privilege and took an adventurous road trip as a medical student, hitchhiking through Brazil. Critics called the comparison pretentious, but Drexler said he didn’t intend it for self-aggrandizement.

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As a composer, he was simply looking for a link to his subject. His song was inspired by the movie’s crucial scene in a Peruvian leper colony where Guevara swims across a wide river at night, risking his life to be with the segregated patients. Drexler chose it as emblematic of Guevara’s journey and his ultimate destiny as a revolutionary.

The songwriter wondered to himself: “What rivers have I crossed?”

Drexler is a product of the Latin American melting pot. His father, a German Jew, was 4 when his family escaped the Holocaust and secretly emigrated to Uruguay. On his mother’s side his heritage is Christian and a mix of Spanish, French and Portuguese.

Drexler was raised Jewish but revels in his duality. In “Milonga Del Moro Judio” (Song of the Moorish Jew) from the new CD, he condemns ethnic and religious war, singing that “there are no people who haven’t considered themselves the chosen people.”

Drexler graduated from medical school in Montevideo but soon switched to music. He released his first album in 1992 and moved to Spain after being discovered by his mentor, fellow songwriter Joaquin Sabina. Drexler lives in the mountains outside Madrid with his wife, singer Ana Laan, and their son, Pablo, 7.

A tranquil zamba, “Al Otro Lado del Rio” reflects the South American folkloric style with a spare arrangement of soft strings. The rhythm loop and vocal track recorded by Drexler the day he wrote the song were kept on the final mix, for the emotion and immediacy.

It opens with a guitar arpeggio that repeats like ripples in water, along with the calm refrain: “I think I’ve seen a light on the other side of the river.”

“The light he sees is his vocation, his call to change the world,” explains Drexler. “It’s a moment of much hope. Despite having seen the saddest part of Latin America, the toughest realities, he intuits that a whole different continent is possible and he takes action in that direction. To me, basically, that is love.”

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