Jorge Drexler’s music connects genres, generations and continents
By Jon Pareles
A recent video chat with songwriter Jorge Drexler quickly turned into a whirlwind music lesson as he demonstrated how a beat could travel among continents and cultures. From his home studio in Madrid, with guitars on the floor and books and family photos on his shelves, Drexler dug into the cross-rhythms of a soleá por bulerías, the flamenco rhythm that underlies the title song of his new album, “Tinta y Tiempo” (“Ink and Time”).
“Tinta y Tiempo,” out Friday, is Drexler’s 14th studio album in a 30-year recording career filled with richly poetic, ingeniously constructed songs, delivered with amiable understatement. Drexler has won multiple Latin Grammy Awards and has collaborated with Shakira, Caetano Veloso, Mon Laferte, Carlinhos Brown and Julieta Venegas, among his many peers across the musical realm he prefers to call Iberoamérica: the places where Spanish and Portuguese (not Latin) are spoken.
Tapping a two-headed ceramic Moroccan drum — a tourist souvenir — and then strumming his guitar, Drexler explained that the three-against-two patterns of the soleá interact “like the sun and the moon,” and he showed how the soleá was akin to a double-time version of the Argentine zamba, the rhythm Drexler used for “Al Otro Lado del Rio,” which won him an Academy Award in 2004, for the film “The Motorcycle Diaries.”
“Everywhere I go, I see these connections. I see these rhythms connect from flamenco to Argentina to the pre-Hispanic cultures to Africa,” he said. “We’ve been practicing globalization for 500 years before it was invented as a word. And that’s a huge laboratory, and that’s a very important laboratory, a contemporary laboratory of the interaction of cultures.”
Drexler, 57, has more actual lab experience than most songwriters. In Uruguay, where he was born, he earned a medical degree and practiced as an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist). He had grown up playing piano and guitar, he said, but “I was a late bloomer.”
He started writing songs seriously when he was 25, and he released his first album, “La Luz Que Sabe Robar” (“The Light That Knows How to Steal”) in Uruguay in 1992. Encouraged by songwriters in Spain, he moved there in 1995 and continued to make albums, regularly drawing Grammy nominations and constantly broadening his audience across the Americas.
“I was a lousy record seller,” he said cheerfully. “From the industry point of view, I was a complete failure. I was so happy I didn’t care.”
As he built his musical career, Drexler wondered why he’d wasted time in medical school. “And then a few years later, I started realizing that there was something in the way I looked at things that was strange, or mine. I realized that I was looking at human relations from the biological or scientific side, and I started melding these inside the songs.”
At some point, he realized, “It’s not a burden. It’s an identity.’”
On previous albums, Drexler has sung about mass migration and parallel universes. He opens “Tinta y Tiempo” with the elaborately orchestrated “El Plan Maestro” (“The Master Plan”). The song envisions the evolutionary moment when a one-celled organism grew tired of dividing alone and decided to share DNA with another cell: the beginning of sexual reproduction and, eventually, love. The track opens with a contrabassoon playing the lowest note in the orchestra and swooping upward. “I wanted to have this feeling of the original magma where life was created,” Drexler said.
Midway through the song, Drexler is joined by one of his idols, Panamanian songwriter Rubén Blades; the rhythm switches to a Panamanian canto de mejorana and Blades sings a décima — a centuries-old, 10-line Spanish verse form as tightly structured as a sonnet — written by Drexler’s cousin Alejandra Melfo, a physicist.
Drexler often builds albums around concepts. His 2014 “Bailar en la Cueva” (“Dancing in the Cave”) grew out of spending time in Colombia, absorbing regional styles and embracing dance rhythms. For his 2017 “Salvavidas de Hielo” (“Lifejacket Made of Ice”), he went to Mexico, but he ended up recording the entire album by layering just his guitar and his voice, even tapping out percussion parts on the guitar. “Salvavidas de Hielo” won the Latin Grammy for singer-songwriter album of the year, and “Telefonía,” a song celebrating telecommunication — “Blessed each wave, each cable/Blessed radiation from the antennas” — was named record and song of the year.
Where “Salvavidas de Hielo” was austere, “Tinta y Tiempo” is lavish and varied. It encompasses whimsical orchestral arrangements, nimble studio bands, international collaborators and computer wizardry.
After recording in Colombia and Mexico, Drexler had considered visiting another country to make his next album. But coronavirus lockdowns sent him home to unexpected isolation. He had always thought of his career as split between the poles of public performance and private, solitary, obsessive songwriting. But until the pandemic, he realized, he had grown used to trying out his songs on family and friends, leaving his new tunes slightly unfinished to see what happened when he played them for others.
“I’m very lazy, so I got used to leaving 20% of the song unresolved,” he said. “Without that 20%, the songs just melted after two or three days.”
On his own in the early months of the pandemic, he disliked everything he wrote; he could only realize the songs’ potential when he gathered a few listeners again. The song “Tinta y Tiempo” is about the elusive process of songwriting: “I never know why or when,” he sings. “I don’t command that voice.”
Songwriting is something Drexler has thought about long and hard. “Songwriting is flexible, it’s diverse and it can be approached from very different places,” he said. “It works with two languages: an abstract language like music and a symbolic, conceptual language of words. I think about the origin of language and the relationship that language originally had with melody. The more primitive languages use less words and more inflections. When I fill out a form and I say I’m a musician, that’s a lie. I’m not a musician, and I’m not a poet, either. I’m a cancionista, a songwriter, and that’s rooted in the origin of something that comes even before spoken language.”