An Uruguayan Singer Plucks the Heart-strings of New Yorkers

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Jorge Drexler successfully turned the usually impersonal, dim and cold Town Hall in midtown into a cheerful and cozy living room as he enchanted the audience with songs from his most recent album, 12 segundos de oscuridad (12 seconds of darkness). Opening up with the title track, Drexler’s sweetly sensual voice flowed over the intently-listening audience like a tide of warm seawater as he sang of the importance of the twelve seconds of darkness that ensue as a lighthouse lamp turns to alert ships of the approaching shore.

What followed was an intimate performance by a humble former doctor who clearly knows his audience and is comfortable baring his soul in his intensely personal lyrics, from religion, identity and love, to technology, politics and our increasingly globalized world. Each song is a three-and-a-half minute of introspection and analysis, miraculously avoiding falling off the cliff of cliché. In the lovely “Soledad” (Loneliness, a duet on the album with Brazilian Maria Rita ), Drexler croons: “Aqui estoy/te traigo mis cicatrices/palabras en papel pentagramado/no te fijes mucho en lo que dicen/me encontras/en cada cosa que he callado” (Here I am/I bring you my scars/words on staff paper/don’t pay much attention to what they say/you will find me/in each thing that I have kept to myself).

Perhaps Drexler’s most poignant and emotional lyrics, however, are a nod to Polish Holocaust survivor and author Wladyslaw Szpilman in the song “El pianista del gueto de Varsovia” from his album Sea. Born to a German Jewish father who migrated to Uruguay and an Uruguayan mother, in the song Drexler contemplates the history of his people’s suffering, and recognizes that only generations, only mere dates, were the stroke of luck that kept him just far enough from a fate of persecution and pain. He comes to a realization: “Si fueras tu nieto y yo fuera mi abuelo/quizas, tu contarias mi historia/yo tengo tus mismas manos/yo tengo tu misma historia/yo pude haber sido el pianista del gueto de Varsovia” (If you were your grandson and I was my grandfather/perhaps, you would tell my story/I have your same hands/I have your same story/I could have been the pianist of the Warsaw ghetto).

Drexler’s voice fell like raindrops on a still pond, and as he lightly and deliberately invoked the notes from his guitar strings, most of the time his voice and his guitar tone were inseparable and indiscernible. They blended together, they complimented one another, they became one delicate voice. During his performance, he incorporated silence, murmurs, soft percussion and barely-there bass in each tune, and often called upon the aid of electronics to loop echoes, chants, his voice, and even that of his nine-year old son, Pablo.

His interaction with the audience was delightful: Drexler, 42, encouraged the quiet but receptive listeners to participate by snapping to the beat , a more pleasant sound than the harshness of clapping, and singing along to the choruses. At first the audience wasn’t confident of what role it should play, as they were literally hanging on every note that came from Drexler’s lips and guitar, but Drexler guided us as though he was teaching us how to kiss. Soon the audience was comfortable singing with him, and the result was an audience that actually contributed to the performer’s music in a complimentary and pleasing way. Fans young and old, Hispanic, Anglo and beyond, cheered adoringly after each song, and begged Drexler to play two encores, which he did obligingly.

Drexler played around eighteen songs, and the impression was that he could have played fifteen or twenty more and the audience would have listened with bated breath the entire time. Absent was the touchingly idealistic “Al otro lado del rio” from the Walter Salles film The Motorcycle Diaries, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Song in 2005, but it was understandable. Being the unique and profoundly talented composer that he is, it is clear that Jorge Drexler wants the world to know that his cup runneth over with music, and we can only hope he’ll continue to make it for the forseeable future and far beyond.