They are the greatest of Colombians: Shakira, pop phenomenon, and Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez, novelist. Naturally, they had to meet - and he, the magical realist, was astonished by her fantastical work-rate
Saturday June 8, 2002
Shakira flew from Miami to Buenos Aires on February 1, pursued by a journalist who wanted to ask her just one question over the phone for a radio programme. For a number of reasons, he failed to reach her over the next 27 days, then lost track of her in Spain in the first week of March. All he had was a storyline and a title for his report: 'What's Shakira doing when nobody can find her?' Shakira, doubled up with laughter, explains with diary in hand, 'I'm living.'
She had arrived in Buenos Aires on the evening of February 1, and the next day worked until after midnight; it was her birthday, but she had no time to celebrate. On Wednesday she headed back to Miami, where she posed for a long publicity shoot and spent several hours recording the English version of her latest album. On Friday, she recorded from two in the afternoon until Saturday morning, slept for three hours, and then went back to the studio, where she worked until three in the afternoon. That night, she slept a few hours and flew to Lima early on Sunday morning. On Monday at noon, she appeared on a live television show; at four, she was filmed for a television advertisement; in the evening, she went to a party thrown by her publicists, and stayed up till dawn. The next day, February 9, she gave 11 half-hour interviews to radio, television and newspapers, from 10 in the morning until five in the afternoon, with a one-hour break for lunch. She needed to be back in Miami, but at the last minute organised a stopover in Bogota, where she consoled the victims of an earthquake.
That night, she managed to get the last flight to Miami, where she spent four days rehearsing for concerts in Spain and Paris. She worked with Gloria Estefan on the English versions of her albums, from Saturday lunchtime until 4.30am on Sunday. She went home at daybreak, drank a cup of coffee and ate a piece of bread, and then fell asleep fully dressed. An hour and a half later, she had to get up for a series of radio interviews. On Tuesday 16, she appeared on a live TV show in Costa Rica. On Thursday she flew to Miami and on to Caracas, where she appeared on the television show Sensational Saturday.
She barely slept - on the 21st she had to fly from Venezuela to Los Angeles to attend the Grammys. She had hoped to be among the winners, but the Americans took all the main awards. Even this didn't slow her down: on the 25th she flew to Spain, where she worked on February 27 and 28. By March 1, when she finally managed to sleep a whole night in a Madrid hotel, she had flown as much as a professional flight attendant - more than 40,000km in a month.
Shakira's engagements on solid ground are no less demanding. The team that travels with her - musicians, light technicians, stage hands, sound engineers - resembles a combat battalion. She oversees everything personally. She doesn't read music, but her perfect pitch and complete focus allow her to ensure that she and her musicians get every note exactly right. She takes a personal interest in every member of her team. Very rarely does she let her tiredness show, but don't let this fool you. On some of the last dates of a 40-concert tour of Argentina, an assistant would be waiting to help her to the tour bus. On occasion she has suffered from palpitations, inflammation of the colon and skin allergies.
The situation was aggravated by her arduous preparations for the English version of DÃ³nde EstÃ¡n Los Ladrones? (Where Are The Thieves?), a collaboration with Emilio Estefan and his wife, Gloria. In this, Shakira was put under some of the worst pressure of her life: she speaks passable English, but worked hard at polishing her accent, becoming so obsessed that she sometimes spoke English in her sleep. The night before her US debut, she became feverish and was unable to sleep. 'I cried all night long, thinking I wouldn't be able to do it.'
The only daughter of a jeweller in Barranquilla, Colombia, William Mebarak, and his wife, Nydia Ripoll, Shakira was born into an artistic family of Arab descent. Her precocity meant that she packed as much into her early years as most people manage in decades. At 17 months, she was reciting the alphabet; at three, she had learned to count; at four, she was belly-dancing at her Barranquilla convent school, where in the 1930s a sybaritic staff member had wanted to erect a monument to the cult of Shirley Temple. By the time she was seven, Shakira had composed her first song. When she was eight, she began writing poems, and at 10, she had written and composed original songs. Around the same time, she signed her first contract, entertaining workers at the El Cerrejon coal mines on the Atlantic coast. She hadn't even started secondary school when a record company signed her.
'I always knew that I was tremendously creative,' she says. 'I recited love poems, I wrote stories and I got excellent grades in every subject, except for maths.' She couldn't stand it when her parents' friends asked her to sing when they came to the house. 'I'd much rather have a crowd of 30,000 than five old farts listening to me sing and strum a guitar.' She looks vulnerable, but she has always been absolutely certain that she would be world famous. She didn't know how, and she didn't know what for, but about this she never had the slightest doubt. It was her destiny.
Today, her dreams have more than come true. Shakira's music doesn't sound like anybody else's, and she has invented her own brand of innocent sensuality. 'If I didn't sing, I'd die,' is a thing often said lightly, but in Shakira's case it's true: when she's not singing, she's hardly alive. Her inner peace comes from an ability to feel alone in the middle of a crowd. She never has stage fright: she's only frightened of not being on stage: 'I feel,' she says, 'like a lion in the jungle.' It's where she can be who she really is.
Many singers look off the stage into bright lights, so as to avoid confronting the spectre of the multitude. Shakira chooses the opposite, ordering her technicians to turn the strongest lights out on to the audience, so she can see them. 'The communication is total,' she says. She can shape the anonymous, unpredictable crowds according to her whims and inspirations. 'I like to see people's eyes when I'm singing to them.' Sometimes, looking into the audience, she sees faces she's never seen before, but remembers them as old friends. Once, she recognised someone who had died years before. Another time, she felt someone looking down on her from another life. 'I sang all night for him,' she says. Such miracles have been the inspiration - and often the ruin - of many great artists.
The most amazing thing about the Shakira phenomenon is the craze that has gripped masses of children. When her album Pies Descalzos was released in 1996, her publicists decided to promote it in the intervals at folk festivals in the Caribbean. They had to change tack when children started throwing themselves into the music, dancing and singing, demanding Shakira and Shakira only for the whole evening. Today, it's a phenomenon worthy of a doctoral dissertation. Primary schoolgirls of every social class have become clones of Shakira - dressing, talking and singing the way she does. Six-year-old girls are her most devoted fans.
Bootleg albums are swapped at break time and sold cheap. Copies of her necklaces and earrings and hair accessories sell out the moment they arrive in the shops. Markets sell quantities of hair dye wholesale so that girls can change their look according to Shakira's latest style. The first girl to get her hands on the latest album is the most popular girl in the school. The best-attended study groups are those that meet in the girls' houses after school - there will be a quick glance at the homework, then pandemonium. Birthday parties are gatherings of little Shakiras, the children dancing and singing just to her music. In the most purist circles - of which there are many - boys aren't invited.
Despite her phenomenal musical talent and marketing savvy, Shakira wouldn't be where she is today without her extraordinary maturity. It's hard to understand how such tremendous creative energy can be present in a girl who changes her hair colour every day: black yesterday, red today, green tomorrow. Already she has more awards, trophies and honorary degrees than many elderly divas. You can tell she's exactly where she wants to be: intelligent, insecure, demure, sweet, evasive, intense. Even at the top of her profession, she's just a girl from Barranquilla; wherever she is, she'll long for mullet roe and manioc bread. She hasn't yet managed to buy her dream home, a quiet hideaway on the beach, complete with high ceilings and two horses. She loves books, she buys them and cherishes them, but she doesn't have as much time to read them as she'd like. She misses the friends she leaves behind after the hurried airport goodbyes, but she knows it won't be easy to see them again.
Of the money she's earned, she says: 'It's more than I admit to and less than people think.' Her favourite place to listen to music is in a car, full blast, with the windows rolled up so it doesn't bother anybody else. 'It's the ideal place to talk to God, to talk to myself, to try to understand.' She hates television. She says that her biggest contradiction is her belief in eternal life and her unbearable terror of death.
She's been known to give up to 40 interviews a day without repeating herself. She's got her own ideas about art, this life and the next, the existence of God, love and death. But her interviewers and publicists have tried so hard to get her to elucidate these views that she's become an expert in evasion, giving answers more notable for what they conceal than what they reveal. She rejects any notion that her fame is fleeting and is exasperated by speculation that overexertion could damage her voice. 'In the full light of day, I don't want to think about the sunset.' In any case, specialists think it's improbable, since her voice has a natural range that will survive her excesses. She's had to sing when she's stricken with fever; she's passed out from fatigue; but her voice has never suffered in the least. 'The worst frustration for a singer,' she says with impatience at the end of our interview, 'is choosing a career in making music and then not being able to make music because you're always giving interviews.'
Her slipperiest subject is love. She exalts it, she idealises it, it's the force behind her songs, but in conversation she glosses over it with humour. 'The truth is,' she says laughing, 'that I'm more afraid of marriage than of death.' She's known to have had four boyfriends, and teasingly admits that there are three more nobody knows about. They've all been about her age, but none has been anywhere near as mature. Shakira mentions them with affection, without pain; she seems to think of them as ephemeral ghosts she has hung up in her closet. Luckily, there's no need to despair: next February 2, beneath the sign of Aquarius, Shakira will be just 26.
Â· Shakira will perform at Party In The Park, London, on July 6. Her new single, Underneath Your Clothes, is out on July 15.
1977 Born Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll in Barranquilla, Colombia, to a Lebanese-American father and a Colombian mother, the youngest of eight children
1985 Aged eight, writes her first song, My Dark Glasses
1990 Aged 13, releases debut album, Magia
1992 Releases second album, Peligro, and joins Colombian soap, El Oasis. Like Kylie Minogue before her, she was married off to the show's alpha male
1996 Finishes secondary school, and releases third album, Pies Descalzos (Bare Feet)
1998 Breaks the North and South American market with fourth album, DÃ³nde EstÃ¡n Los Ladrones? (Where Are The Thieves?), which numbers Led Zeppelin, Mexican mariachi and Lebanese music among its influences
1998 Appointed official goodwill ambassador by the government, and granted an audience with the Pope
1999 Teaches herself English from rhyming dictionaries, the poetry of Leonard Cohen and Walt Whitman, and the music of Pulp, Radiohead, The Police and Janis Joplin
2000 Sets her sights on the US and Europe, signing to starmaker Freddy DeMann, Madonna's former manager
2001 Her first album in English, Laundry Service, sells 2m in the US. Begins dating Antonio de la Rua, son of now-deposed Argentine president Fernando de la Rua. Rioters in Buenos Aires suggest she pay off their national debt
2002 Laundry Service released in the UK, entering charts at number 3. The single Whenever, Wherever (featuring the memorable lyric, 'Lucky that my breasts are small and humble, so you don't confuse them with mountains') reaches number 2, held off the top spot by Will Young
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