Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler triumphed at this year’s Latin Grammys, winning not one, but two awards for his sublime folk-pop ballad, “Telefonía.” The lead single off his 2017 album, Salvavidas de Hielo, “Telefonía” was honored for both Song of the Year, and the most coveted award of the night, Record of the Year.
The Latin Grammys have a well-documented history of shirking urban artists for more traditional ones, especially veterans. This year the Latin Recording Academy bestowed the honor of Person of the Year to alt-rock heroes Maná; and rewarded Mexican pop icon (and chronic no-show) Luis Miguel with two awards for Album of the Year and Best Ranchero/Mariachi Album. Still, few expected the Academy to snub J Balvin, Colombian ambassador of reggaeton, for Record of the Year — a category in which he was nominated twice, for songs “X” and “Mi Gente.”
Drexler’s win left many viewers scratching their heads. But it left others heralding the victory of what they deem respectable music over “Los malos,” as Drexler says wryly, “los reggaetoneros.” Drexler was quick to take down such elitism in his acceptance speech that night: “I have no enemies in music,” he proclaimed, award in hand.
“I’ve listened to a lot of music over the years,” Drexler tells Rolling Stone on a phone call from his home in Madrid. “I’ve witnessed prejudice against many genres. When I was a teen, it was disco. It was rock. I like reggaeton — I like to dance to reggaeton. There’s a sensuality to it that I like. It makes me sad that anyone thinks that I am an example of intellectual superiority [over reggaeton].”
“My enemies are not in music,” he continues. “My enemies are the corrupt, the intolerant, the killers of the world.”
Born and raised in Uruguay, Drexler has been an outspoken champion of human rights, both in his music and in his personal life. Prejudice against genres, he finds, echoes social prejudices such as racism, sexism and xenophobia. The son of a German Jew who fled the Nazis, Drexler and his family sought refuge in Israel in the Seventies, after a far-right military dictatorship took hold in Uruguay and threatened their safety. “When I sense a prejudice against another group, I have to investigate it and denounce it,” he says.
Following in the footsteps of his parents, both doctors, Drexler returned to Uruguay as an adult and studied medicine in the capital of Montevideo. He toughed it out as an ear, nose and throat specialist for a few years before he finally surrendered to his dream of being a rock star at 30. The career shift proved well worth it: 13 studio albums in, he’s garnered an equal number of accolades for his music, including five Latin Grammys and one Academy Award.
Drexler won his first Academy Award for the “Al Otro Lado del Río” (“The Other Side of the River”), which he wrote as the closing track for 2005 Ché Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries. At the time, Drexler was known to few outside the Spanish-speaking world, but his song was the first Spanish-language song in the Academy’s history to win Best Original Song. Although Drexler sang the song himself, he was not invited to perform at the 2005 Academy Awards — Anglophone crossover stars Antonio Banderas and Carlos Santana performed the track in his stead.
In spite of all its controversy, this year’s Latin Grammys, by comparison, went far more smoothly for the artist. He says that his winning song, “Telefonía” — which translates to “Telephony,” a somewhat implicit pun — speaks to the persistence of the human desire for connection, and what we’ll do to achieve any semblance of it. “Blessed each wave, each cable/Blessed radiation of the antennas,” he sings, “As long as your voice speaks to me.”
“We have always wanted to communicate,” he says. “We made marks on caves so they would be found 60,000 years later. The medium changes, but it’s the same message over and over.
“[‘Telefonía’] was born as a short voice message,” he continues, “the kind of message you write without thinking about it. … After two glasses of wine, when you think you’re losing touch with somebody. You see a person’s name on your telephone screen and you have this strong desire — you want to express your love in the most intense way. So I recorded this and sent this to the person,” he says. Then he takes a pause — “It was a sexual note for my wife,” he professes with a chuckle. “I put it to a Beatles-like bass line and the song organically took shape.”
An exclusively guitar-driven album, from its intricate melodies to its percussive elements, Salvavidas de Hielo features guests such as Mon Laferte, Natalia Lafourcade and DJ-producer Nicola Cruz. The result is a collection of nimbly crafted songs, imparting both sweet nothings and mighty lessons, from a poetic critique to global attacks on migrants (“Movimiento”) to a lament for an earth plagued by global warming (“Despedir a los Glaciares”).
“I used the concept by Igor Stravinsky: ‘the more I limit myself, the more I free myself,'” Drexler says of his technique. “I wanted to restrict some aspects of my music, to make other aspects of the music expand and explode. Because limitations are really important allies of the creative process: They oblige you to look for solutions in unexpected places.
“It’s also a fractal study of the guitar,” he continues. “Fractal, meaning, searching for the infinite within the limited. Between the numbers one and two, there are infinite numbers. That’s what I wanted to do with the guitar — open it up and get to the microscopic details of its sound.”
True to Drexler’s scientific and inquisitive approach to his music, he feels like Latin music and identity, in all its diversity, must evolve with the times. Attitudes of fear, whether of urban music, or of entire groups of people, stand in the way of progress. “Traditional Latin American music is great,” Drexler continues. “But the worst way to address Latin America is by romanticized, nostalgic ideas of our continent. You know, Los Saicos started punk in Peru in 1965! Over 10 years before the Sex Pistols did. We have so much more to give than our past — we, too, shape the future. We are the plant, not only the roots.”
So what’s next for Jorge Drexler? After two years of touring in support of Salvavidas, the singer only has plans to rest at home in Madrid. Yet following his win, he says two different mobile companies have since approached him with offers to use “Telefonía” in commercials. The singer-songwriter says, with a laugh, that they’re missing the point.
“You know how ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ was used by the [Reagan] campaign?” Drexler says. “It’s … not the most positive song. People must learn to read between the lines.”