What’s Shak­ing With Shakira? More Than You’d Guess

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts -

“ 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 Bo­gotá 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 sul- try 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 Peña, 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 Gar­cía Márquez, 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,” Gar­cía Márquez wrote in a glow­ing profile of Shakira that ap­peared in 1999. With her gui­tar and her grownup 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 “Dónde Es­tán 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. Peña, 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.”


Colom­bian-born Shakira per­forms at the Giza pyra­mids in Egypt last month, and holds her Latin Grammy bounty last year. Her songs have drawn a fol­low­ing the world over, and she draws her lyrics from that world, too, of­ten ad­dress­ing mat­ters ei­ther po­lit­i­cal or philo­soph­i­cal.


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