Opening doors

Times Staff Writer

Uruguayan musician Jorge Drexler, Sunday’s dark-horse winner of the Academy Award for best song, was delighted to discover just how quickly, and literally, Oscar opens doors in Hollywood.

Though critically acclaimed throughout Spain and Latin America, Drexler was so little known in the United States that he whooshed through the red carpet without being asked for a pre-show interview. Nobody recognized the slight, soft-spoken singer-songwriter who would score a surprise victory for his moving tune, “Al Otro Lado del Rio,” from “The Motorcycle Diaries.”

Drexler, a physician who undertook a full-time music career at 30, didn’t even have enough clout to sing his own song on the telecast, an honor given instead to actor Antonio Banderas.

Drexler wasn’t invited to the important after-Oscar parties either, and when the singer and his posse tried to crash the exclusive Vanity Fair affair, they were stopped by security.

“Who are you?” the guard asked.

“I’m Oscar!” replied Drexler, sticking the gold statuette out the car window.


The gates parted. Suddenly, he was in.

The rest of the night, Drexler was enthusiastically greeted by stars and strangers alike who quickly gave him an American nickname: “Mr. Jorge! Mr. Jorge!”

“I’m so grateful to the academy for giving us all a lesson in openness,” said Drexler the next day over a victory breakfast of pancakes and jet-lag juice. “Against all predictions, they voted for a totally unknown person who had no type of lobby behind him and who made no move to even get nominated. So I want to believe that they chose the song. That’s all.”

Drexler gave the only singing acceptance speech of the evening, crooning a few lines from his song and walking off. He insists he wasn’t dissing Banderas’ performance. On the contrary, he praised the actor for having the courtesy to give him a private preview before the show. The arrangement wasn’t exactly Drexler’s style, the songwriter concedes, especially with Carlos Santana’s incongruous electric guitar licks. But he gives Banderas an “A” for ardent.

“I’m very bad at giving speeches, and I just really wanted to sing,” Drexler explains. “Since they didn’t let me sing on the show but they gave me 45 seconds to do something, I just decided to do what I do best.”

News of Drexler’s victory was greeted in his native country with the enthusiasm reserved for international soccer upsets by the home team. The entire Drexler family, watching the show at 4:30 a.m. in Montevideo, let out a cheer and ran out to jump into their swimming pool, clothes and all.

The Montevideo daily El Pais touted the world’s “first Uruguayan Oscar.” The rest of the continent could celebrate the first Spanish-language song to win an Oscar.

Yet until now, Drexler’s seven albums had not been issued in the United States, an important Latin music market. Warner Music Latina is rushing the release of his latest CD, “Eco,” with the award-winning song included as a bonus track.

“Jorge Drexler is Uruguay’s most important singer-songwriter [and] his music deserved to be released in the U.S. long ago,” says fellow Uruguayan Enrique Lopetegui, music editor of the Texas daily Rumbo. “But of course, the gringos had to come and tell us Drexler was good so that our brilliant Latin label execs [could] decide to do their jobs.”

Drexler is accustomed to living at the edges of celebrity. He comes from a tiny country where selling 6,000 units gets you a gold record.

He studied piano as a child, but became a doctor like both his parents. While still vacillating between medicine and music, he made two independent albums and spent vacations putting up posters for his own concerts.

He committed himself to music as a career 10 years ago, moving to Madrid to get noticed. But he then made two albums on Virgin that didn’t sell.

By the end of 1998, his life and career were at a crossroads. He and his wife had just had their first child. He knew that he could either make a more commercial record or forget about a career on a major label.

What Drexler did was risk it all by going back to Uruguay to record with two members of the funk/hip-hop group Peyote Asesino (Killer Peyote) as co-producers. While exploring new sounds, he also reconnected with his roots, inviting guest singer Ruben Rada and two musicians from the string quartet of the late Alfredo Zitarrosa, Uruguay’s great folkloric figure.

The result was “Frontera,” an album that didn’t sell any better in Spain but opened new doors for Drexler in Argentina and elsewhere. The title cut rings like an immigrant anthem: “I don’t know where I come from/My house is on the border/And borders move/ Like flags.”

Drexler, whois of German Jewish and Spanish Christian heritage, says, “That album marked a before and after for me. People took it as a personal artistic statement. It was a record that really connected, and it was like my career straightened out.”

Drexler’s popularity took another leap when one of his songs, “Me Haces Bien (You Do Me Good)” from his 2001 album, “Sea,” was used in an Argentine TV commercial for Knorr’s alphabet soup. The ad was so catchy that people started asking him to sing “that soup song.”

The commercial was so successful that the soup maker crowed that it had even lifted the Argentine national spirit. The next year, the ad agency churned out a new Knorr commercial with another Drexler tune. This time, the songwriter said no.

“I didn’t want to be tied institutionally to a brand,” Drexler says. “I didn’t want to be anybody’s logo.”

Drexler left L.A. in good spirit the day after the Oscars. In keeping with his winning song from a film about a young Che Guevara, the singer planned to fly to Montevideo to attend Tuesday’s inauguration of Uruguay’s first elected leftist president. After that, he intended to keep previous commitments to perform solo at small venues in little towns in Spain’s Aragon province.

The only thing he wants now from his Oscar success, he says, is the chance to perform with dignity in the U.S. and keep artistic control over his future work.

“I was happy with my life before the Oscars,” Drexler says. “The truth is, I earn my living honestly, writing songs on paper and playing guitar in person. How many people can say they really enjoy their work? Is there a greater privilege in life?”