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Shakira's Sense and Sensuality

Shakira busy planning new album and dance moves

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 8, 2007; Page N01

BARRANQUILLA, Colombia -- When she was just a second-grader, Shakira Isabel Mebarak Rippoll's dream was to join the choir at the prim-and-proper Maria the Teacher Catholic school in this tradition-bound Caribbean city. But the music director felt that her potent voice would overwhelm the syrupy cadence of the other children.

"My voice was strong and I wanted to sing out loud, and he didn't think I was the right choice for the choir," she recalls. "And he never let me be in the choir. It was such a huge frustration for me."

Downcast, she found solace with her parents, who encouraged her to enter local singing competitions. Soon she began racking up the trophies. And in her early teens the diminutive girl with the throaty, commanding voice struck out on her own, which as it turns out has been an enduring feature in her career.

Having long shed her last name and dyed her black hair blond, Shakira is now a 30-year-old swivel-hipped bombshell who has become Latin America's most successful crossover artist. Last fall at the Latin Grammy Awards, she won four of the five awards for which she was nominated, including female pop vocal album of the year, song of the year and album of the year for "Fijaci?n Oral Vol. 1." But coming off the follow-up "Oral Fixation Vol. 2," her second English-language album and featuring the smash single "Hips Don't Lie," Shakira is entering territory that, for other global stars like her, has sometimes resulted in cookie-cutter music and artistic oblivion (see: Ricky Martin). The question is whether the pressures to produce top-selling albums will check the inventiveness that some music critics say has set her apart from other sex-shilling pop stars (see: Britney Spears).

"In every artist's career at that level you're faced with challenges -- the challenges of what to do to invent, how to reinvent yourself," says Jose Tillan, a programming and talent executive at MTV Networks Latin America. Some rising stars, he says, "kind of, like, crash and burn. They believe the hype and that they're always going to be at the top of their game."

Shakira seems all too aware of the pitfalls as she wraps up an arduous worldwide tour and embarks on the long process of sketching out lyrics for her new album and creating new dance moves for her carnival-like concerts. "That risk is there," she says. "We let ourselves be tempted with fame and the glitters of popularity. . . . The risk becomes greater when you start repeating formulas, when you stop competing against yourself. When you lose authenticity. When you don't rely on your own feelings. When you let yourself be absorbed with the outer world, and you lose contact with your inner world."

Shakira prizes her success, of course -- "once you reach the top positions in the radio chart, you want to stay there" -- and revels in all those flattering magazine shoots and videos that hype her beauty and sex appeal. But in a recent interview, after an intense two days that included a concert in Barranquilla and a trip to the Colombian capital of Bogot? for another show, she showed a more thoughtful and intellectual side than might be expected among entertainers whose stock in trade includes purely physical sensuality.

Shakira was once compared to Britney Spears, a fellow bottle blonde also known to gyrate like a belly dancer. But the comparison ends there. Shakira is moved by politics and the world around her. She tortures herself over her music -- producing, at times, sophisticated lyrics that explore such themes as poisonous resentments and the existence of God. And then there's that voice -- deep and sultry one moment, a poignant alto the next, a voice that exudes an experience and pain that seem well beyond her years.

In person, she is smaller than she appears onstage, not even five feet tall. She still looks like a teenager and can be completely disarming. She curls her legs under her when she talks. And she sounds almost schoolgirl innocent as she speaks about her love for her boyfriend, Antonio de la Rua, son of a former Argentine president.

But she's read Walt Whitman and can hold forth on topics as divergent as Freud, Colombia's civil conflict, existentialism, human vulnerability or her rock heroes, Bono and Depeche Mode. She learned English only a few years ago but speaks with adventurous aplomb, peppering her speech with colorful, sometimes oddly poetic metaphors.

She also is a shrewd entrepreneur and demanding taskmaster of what has become a one-woman industry that includes not only beefy bodyguards and stagehands, but the star's parents and other assorted relatives. As her career has skyrocketed, managers like Emilio Estefan Jr., of Miami Sound Machine fame, and Freddy DeMann, the legendary impresario who once managed Madonna, have fallen by the wayside.

"She writes all of her songs," said Archie Pe?a, a drummer and songwriter who has been working with Shakira since she was 17. "She's involved inside and out, in every single detail of the songs, the album, the performance, her dresses. She's not one of those artists that everybody does something for her. She actually comes up with the ideas herself."

Shakira's story began in this port city of high-rise apartments, turn-of-the-century mansions and gritty warehouse districts along the Caribbean coast. The daughter of a frustrated writer of Lebanese descent and a Colombian mother, Shakira recalls wanting to become a writer at age 4, intrigued as she was by her father's constant tapping on his banged-up typewriter.

She wrote her first song at age 8, "Your Dark Glasses," about her father. Two years later, she was certain she wanted to be a singer for the rest of her life. It seems that one of the singular events in her life was the night her father, William Mebarak, took her to a local Middle Eastern restaurant; hearing the traditional Arab drum, Shakira began to dance, to the delight of other diners.

"The musical roots Shakira has come from my family," Mebarak, an amiable man dressed in a tropical guayabera, said proudly. "In my family there was music. There is still music."

Some of Colombia's best musicians -- indeed artists of all kinds -- hail from this coast. It's no surprise. Barranquilla and the region around it are rich with history and intrigue, as well as an almost supernatural form of Catholicism and the magical realism of Colombia's Nobel laureate, Gabriel Garc?a M?rquez, who also comes from the coast.

"Shakira's unrelenting precociousness, her granite-like devotion and a native city prone to artistic invention could be the only grounds for such a rare destiny," Garc?a M?rquez wrote in a glowing profile of Shakira that appeared in 1999.

With her guitar and her grown-up voice, Shakira was soon singing the sappy love ballads that are a staple in Latin music. By 13, she had begun recording in a Bogota studio, this after chasing down a record executive in a Barranquilla hotel.

Her first two albums were quickly forgotten, but then in 1996 came "Pies Descalzos" ("Bare Feet"), which sold 4 million copies.

She hit it big with "D?nde Est?n Los Ladrones?" ("Where Are the Thieves?") in 1998. The album was nominated for a Grammy, and the song "Ojos Asi" ("Eyes Like Yours"), won Shakira best female pop vocal performance.

Her first English-language album, "Laundry Service" in 2001, which features the hit "Whenever, Wherever," sold more than 13 million worldwide and established Shakira as a crossover star. (The two "Oral" CDs were both in the top five on Billboard's U.S. album chart.)

When asked about particular songs, a smile crosses her face and she eagerly recollects how the words came to her. A song called "Shadow of You," for example, came in a storm of creativity at 4 a.m.

"That's beautiful, when in music or in art in general, you have those miraculous moments," she explains. "There's no rational factor involved, and the miracle of art or music just happens and you're just a witness to it."

Shakira also delves into a multitude of issues that catch her interest -- it's a testament, say those who know her, to her intense curiosity. So on one tour of the East Coast, she hired a Columbia University professor to tutor her about American history. In another tour in Mexico, an Italian teacher tagged along because she's determined to dominate that language (she also speaks Portuguese).

"Every artist has their one vanity," says Ceci Kurzman, Shakira's manager. "Some like to have a trainer on the road, or a chef or a babysitter. Shakira asked to have a professor on the road, so she could teach her about the country she was traveling through."

In Barranquilla a few months ago, after Shakira's arrival from her home in Miami, the mood was festive. The city's movers and shakers jostled to be photographed with her. She was the central attraction of the Bare Feet Foundation, the group she founded to raise money for education and nutrition programs for poor Colombian children.

But Shakira, despite her pleasant demeanor, was not afraid to voice sentiments that are rarely embraced on the conservative coast, a region that is known in Colombia for its pervasive corruption and political violence. In a news conference, she talked about income inequality, the sorry state of schools in the region and how state abandonment of Colombia's vast countryside had fueled a grinding guerrilla war.

"There's nothing that justifies violence, but we must study the causes," said Shakira, who shared the dais with Barranquilla's mayor, Guillermo Hoenigsberg. (Not much later he was removed from office for corruption and accused of ties to paramilitary groups.)

But if dabbling in Colombia's social morass is typical Shakira, she readily admits that her main preoccupation is creating music. Pe?a, the drummer, senses that Shakira may go back to Colombia, at least figuratively, with her next album.

"I would think that she would want to go back to her basic roots, probably going back and doing absolutely Colombian artists," he says. "I don't know if that's in her mind. But I kind of see her going in that direction."

Shakira smiles when asked what kind of album she might come up with. She says she'll take her time; she usually spends three years to produce an album. She intends to write about "anything that goes through my mind, my question marks, my moments of existentialism, my moments of certainty." And she'll do lots of the writing 30,000 feet above earth, as she travels from concert to concert.

"It's the only place I can find myself safe from everything else," she says. "Then is when the songs are born, when I give myself time to swing in that inner world."

Posted at 04/11/2007. Original article can be found here.

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