Shakira's Sense and Sensuality

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

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 "Fijación 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 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 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 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."

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