In Any Language, a Whole Lotta Shakira Goin' On

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006

Shakira doesn't need much to shake an arena to its rafters. No pyrotechnics, no army of backup dancers, no elaborate staging -- not even a pair of shoes.

Just her charisma, pipes and hips. E specially the hips. Let's just say that wars have been fought over lesser hips than Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll's.

Playing Tuesday at the sold-out Verizon Center, the barefoot singer/songwriter/hip-shaker from Colombia kept things relatively simple yet still managed to make an absolutely convincing case that she's a global pop star in the truest sense.

For one thing, she's a preternaturally gifted performer who has an easy command of the stage and the sort of radiating presence that you just can't teach. There's also that matter of her multi-ethnicity (her mother is Colombian, her father Lebanese), as well as her bilingual catalogue: Though she began as a Spanish-language singer, Shakira has been performing in English, too, over the past five years. And perhaps there's more to come -- she evidently speaks five languages.

Already, her music incorporates influences from all over the world: Tuesday's set opened with a musician playing a solo on an African stringed instrument and, over the next 90 minutes, touched on everything from cumbia (from Shakira's native Colombia), reggaeton (from Puerto Rico) and tejano (Mexico) to bossa nova (Brazil), disco (America) and power ballads (a genre that no country likely wants to claim). There were also Middle Eastern flourishes, most notably during the introductions to "Ojos Asi" and Shakira's English-language breakthrough, "Whenever, Wherever" -- all the better to get the star in a belly-dancing mood.

The crowd, of course, went apoplectic when Shakira began to undulate to those two songs. There was shrieking. There was hyperventilating. There was fainting. And that was just my own reaction.

Shakira is among pop music's greatest dancers, as there is much more to her repertoire than just those swaying hips. (Though there are those.) Lithe and graceful, she has incredible isolation and instincts, not to mention pretty fine technique. If this music thing doesn't work out for her, she might consider a career in modern dance.

But she can hold her own as a singer, even if she doesn't have the best, most distinctive voice in the business. In fact, she tends to sound a lot like other artists: During the rock power ballad "Don't Bother," the obvious reference point was Pat Benatar -- and Shakira even looked the part, gamely strumming a glittery purple electric guitar, then snarling with her foot atop a monitor. In the anthemic "Si Te Vas," she became Cher en español. And Shakira's inflection during "Underneath Your Clothes" recalled Alanis Morissette's -- particularly as she began to caterwaul.

Shakira's voice is plenty powerful. She also rarely misses notes, unlike most of her song-and-dance counterparts. That's no small feat given how kinetic she is in concert.

Backed by a seven-piece multi-culti band that mostly stayed pinned to the back half of the spartan stage, Shakira performed more songs in Spanish than in English, which was a good thing: She's a more convincing vocalist in her native tongue, as she's obviously more comfortable with the language. (She has the tendency to sound tight and clenched when she sings in English. Then again, you might, too, if you were mostly performing melodramatic power ballads.)

Still, her between-song chatter was almost entirely in English. The only time she addressed the crowd in Spanish came after she mentioned that she'd written "Inevitable" on a beach in her homeland, and a roar came from the audience -- particularly from those sections wrapped in Colombian flags. At that point, Shakira proffered a brief shout-out in Spanish.

But the language itself ultimately didn't matter, particularly when she unveiled her most recent hits -- both of which have achieved great success on a global scale.

First came "La Tortura," from Shakira's 2005 Spanish-language album, "Fijacion Oral" (not to be confused with her 2005 English-language album, "Oral Fixation"). The "La Tortura" video was the first in Spanish to land in regular rotation on MTV, and thousands in the crowd saluted the song and its galloping reggaeton beat like some sort of international hero.

The finale was the summer smash "Hips Don't Lie," a duet with the rapper-producer Wyclef Jean, who'd opened the show and thus re-emerged to perform the song live. Not that anybody was paying any attention to him.

Not with Shakira making the entire arena twitch simply by swiveling her you-know-whats.

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