Five foot tall Colombian bombshell Shakira may only have come to the attention of the English-speaking world this year, but already there is no top female pop star she can’t challenge.
So you’re a former soap actress with much remarked upon buttocks, Kylie Minogue? At 15, Shakira starred in Colombian soap ‘El Oasis’, acting badly but still picking up an award from a TV listings paper for “Best Rear on Television”.
So you’re both in relationships with instantly recognisable heart throbs, Victoria Beckham and Jennifer Lopez? Shakira is the obsession of the Spanish-speaking tabloids along with her boyfriend Antonio, the son of the recently deposed president of Argentina, Fernando De La Rua. And while author Zadie Smith may be an extremely vocal admirer of Madonna, Shakira has the patronage of her highbrow compatriot Gabriel Garcia Marquez, no less.
But while she may be forever compared to the Britneys and Christinas of this world, there is something unique about the Latin star. Speaking at her second home in Miami, just before the final American date of her 50 city world tour, it is a matter of minutes before she is straying from the traditional pop diva subject matters of fitness regimes and how much she loves her British fans, and talking at length about the faults of today’s politicians. Her “Tour of the Mongoose” (more on that wacky title later) arrives in London on Monday, and incorporates a film showing the Grim Reaper as puppet master over a chess match between George Bush and Saddam Hussein.
“I don’t feel that I am only an entertainer – I also feel that I am a communicator,” she says. “War has invaded our lives, and young people have to talk about it. We’re the ones who are going to have to live with the planet all shattered and destroyed by the leaders who don’t know how to talk about love.”
Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll has travelled a long way to end up criticizing American foreign policy on stage. Born 25 years ago in Barranquilla, a port on the Caribbean side of Colombia, to her Lebanese-American father and Colombian mother, she wrote her first song age eight (an ode to her dad entitled ‘Your Dark Glasses’) and released her first album, ‘Magia’ (‘Magic’) at 13. However, she didn’t become a huge star until her fourth release, 1998’s ‘Dónde Están Los Ladrones?’ (‘Where Are The Thieves?’), which sold a collossal eight million copies in North and South America.
Like Robbie Williams’s current desperation for an American hit, having conquered one part of the globe Shakira became thirsty for another. In March this year she launched a sustained attack on the English-language market, which has resulted in her first English album, ‘Laundry Service’, approaching sales of 10 million worldwide.
She has suffered much ribbing over her unorthodox command of our language, rather unjustly as she has only been speaking it for two years. A conversation with her is, admittedly, like listening to a more surreal version of one of Virginia Woolf’s streams of consciousness. She begins to answer a question slowly at first, with lots of hesitations while she fishes for her point. Once she gets going, she will talk straight over any attempt at an interruption. Some sentences can meander on for several minutes.
“I feel blessed because I know that I have the great opportunity to communicate with people a message, an idea, a question mark, my feelings, my doubts,” she says. “Little by little, as my fans get to know me deeper and deeper and get closer to me, they will understand who I am, where I come from, what my musical and artistic proposal is, you know?” Er, possibly.
Lyrically, Shakira is best known for asserting “Lucky that my breasts are small and humble, so you don’t confuse them with mountains” in hit single ‘Whenever, Wherever’, but nearly every song has an equally surprising poetic gem. Here’s another example, from ‘Ready For The Good Times’: “I used to read survival guides, when my world was full of seven legged cats”.
While she may deserve to have her poetic licence revoked, she just about gets away with it because her music is such a riot. She may be singing complete nonsense, but she does it over a kaleidoscope of musical backings in a throaty, powerful voice that traverses octaves with ease. There are tango accordions, pan pipes, thunderous percussion and hard rock guitars. Live, she does covers of AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’ and Aerosmith’s ‘Dude Looks Like a Lady’ beneath a 40ft cobra with flashing eyes. What’s not to enjoy?
So why’s it called the Tour of the Mongoose, Shakira?
“The mongoose can bite the neck of the cobra and defeat it,” she explains. “I thought that this was so special that I couldn’t help myself thinking about this animal, and thinking of an analogy. Because if we could just bite the neck of hatred in everyday life, so many things could change. The existence of the mongoose is like the existence of hope to me.”
And as long as Shakira exists, the pop world can never be boring.