Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Light on the Other Side

What if there really is a light on the other side of the river ... ? That's the thought that lingers after sharing what Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler confessed was his first night in Washington, D.C., on March 10.

The question comes from Drexler's hit song “Al Otro Lado del Rio” (On the Other Side of the River) from the film The Motorcycle Diaries, which in 2005 became the first Spanish language song ever to win an Oscar.

You may also recall the pitiful way the Academy Award event's television producers shot themselves in the foot by refusing Drexler the chance to perform the song, opting instead for a substandard performance by bigger names Carlos Santana and – hold on to your hat, Zorro! – Antonio Banderas.

The visiting Latin American artist combines pre-Columbian beats and computer generated sound with the strumming of his guitar. In his performance at the Lisner Auditorium I even saw him at one point flip his guitar and sing into the box.

For this particular song, however, he chose only traditional syncopation, his guitar and his balladeer's voice, a tenor just slightly reminiscent of Paul Simon as a young singer yet imbued with a beguiling intimacy: he is sighing his words only for you.

Certainly, “Al Otro Lado” was a perfect coda to the film's retelling of the young Ernesto “Che” Guevara's motorcycle hegira with lifelong friend Alberto Granado from Argentina to Peru, some time before their respective appointments with history.

In the film, the song is a fade on a fade on a fade, the sort of thing that abounds in Drexler's music.

What in 1952 was the prosaic takeoff of a lumbering cargo DC-3 from a distant airfield in a South American jungle gets telescoped to the North American present of 2000-and-something with a voiceover reminiscence performed by the actor who plays Granado, the Argentine Rodrigo de la Serna, actually related to Che in real life.

Then comes the fade-in of the wrinkled face of the real Granado.

Finally you hear Drexler: Clavo mi remo en el agua / llevo tu remo en el mio (I nail my oar in the water / carrying your oar in mine). Creo que he visto una luz / al otro lado del rio. (I think I've seen a light / on the other side of the river.)

For me, it was the recap of a lifetime: I was alive, just barely, the actual day depicted in the film; but in my own early years I did travel the first segment of Che and Granado's route, from Buenos Aires to the Andean village of Bariloche. Two-and-a-half days by train, I took it in both directions several times.

The first two hours you were in the suburbs and exurbs of the big city. Then the open country started; now its starts a couple of hours later, encroached upon by the metropolitan octopus that is home to a third of Argentina's population.

It was also the land in which I often went camping. A flat, verdant and endless land, the so-called "humid" pampa. Back then it still had a few rivers one had to ford on foot, or in a boat, or in a raft -- as in the movie.

At night the pampa I remember was a countryside lit only by the constellation of the Southern Cross. A light at ground level was a miracle -- or a mirage. Creo que he visto una luz ...

Yet I'd guess Drexler thought up this line looking out on the Rio de la Plata, an estuary that at its widest puts 138 miles of sweet, potable water between its Uruguayan and Argentine shores. From Buenos Aires, built near the river delta from which the waterway opens, it would take a very clear winter night when ships were at harbor to see a little twinkling miles away: Colonia, Uruguay.

Drexler's hometown perch in Montevideo is almost at the teeth of the river's mouth, where the river meets the Atlantic. If he thought he saw a light, at nearly 140 miles' distance, I'd say he imagined it.

Yet seen as a commentary on the decades of Che's historical life and the firestorm he set off, in what Washington strategists today call an “asymmetric conflict,” with thousands tortured, made to disappear and die, the song feels iconic.

Like Che, I was once shocked by Latin American scenes similar to those in the film. I just didn't think violence would change anything.

Let's not kid ourselves. The song is a Hollywood artifact. Drexler has even gone the extra mile of inserting the Christ-figure allusion, often made by some of Che, in the notion of not merely dipping one's oar in pursuit of a light, but nailing it.

So which is it, mirage or miracle? Is it possible any more that there is a light out there far on the other side? Hasn't it been doused out of sight with new cities, lively commerce, cleverly developed new injustices?

All this confronted me as I stepped out of the concert and back into the modern, globalized world.

How do I sum up the reason my eyes well up on the verge of tears? Drexler provides a soothing, hope-filled answer to explain the crossing of the river:

Sobre todo – he sings -- creo que no todo esta perdido. (Above all, I think, not all is lost.)
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