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POP MUSIC

Shakira, a pop-rock success in Latin America, seems to have what it takes to be a smash with the English-speaking U.S. Will she be the . . . : Queen of Crossover?

April 18, 1999|ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ | Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a Times staff writer

MIAMI — Dear Sarah McLachlan; Thank you for adding African Americans to the Lilith Fair lineup. Could you please add a half-Lebanese Colombian now? Her name is Shakira, which means "woman full of grace" in Arabic. She is 22, plays guitar, writes, sings and produces her own songs, which sound a little like yours, except you can go clubbing to hers. Thank you. Sincerely, the 600,000 Americans who have already bought Shakira's "Donde Estan Los Ladrones" (Where Are the Thieves) in Spanish.

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Shakira, the tips of her short, well-used fingernails painted black, her long hair teased into a raven halo around her face, sits quietly at the table, listening to Emilio Estefan brag about her.

Dressed her age, in tight magenta pants, multicolored T-shirt and clunky-heeled sandals, her body is clearly young. But the eyes. They are intense, supernaturally intelligent, exquisite. And ancient. The girl is a good listener, whether in Spanish, Portuguese or English. But the old, old woman whose soul glows from these eyes is an even better sage.

Estefan, the producer behind the success of his wife, Gloria, and one of the most respected executives in Latin and pop music, is Shakira's new manager and executive producer. Speaking from the head of a conference table in his expansive Miami office, he says Shakira will be "the biggest crossover in history"--thanks to her universally catchy pop-rock melodies, cerebral lyrics, unwavering self-determination and natural sex appeal. As he brags, Shakira smiles modestly at the mention of her own possibilities, pleased, prepared and maybe a little nervous.

The numbers support Estefan's assertion that Shakira may be the biggest crossover in history. The United States is the world's largest music consumer, accounting for 33% of global music sales, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America. Rock is by far the most popular genre, making up 32.5% of all domestic sales; pop accounts for only 9.4% of domestic sales.

If Shakira succeeds in crossing over in rock in the United States, the profits could indeed eclipse any crossover to date. Add to this the fact that Latin music sales, including Latin rock, are growing at twice the overall industry rate, and it is no wonder that one of Shakira's biggest supporters is Sony Music head Tommy Mottola, who said Shakira "is absolutely brilliant as an artist" and predicted "Latin music is the reservoir of talent that can be the crossover pop stars and the global pop stars of the future."

Born Shakira Mebarak in the muggy town of Baranquilla, near Colombia's Caribbean coast, Shakira is the youngest of eight children of William Mebarak, an American-born jeweler and writer of Lebanese descent, and Nidia Ripoll Mebarak, a Colombian housewife.

By age 3, Shakira could read and write, and her parents say there has always been something almost spookily astute about her. By 5, she could belly-dance, and she wrote her first poem, which included the words: "Your eyelids close / and in your lips it feels like a window of light." At 8, she wrote her first song. At 11, she won talent shows as a guitarist and was thrown out of her school chorus because her voice was too strong.

At 13--the age at which she discovered bands such as the Cure and the Rolling Stones--Shakira signed a recording contract with Sony Discos, which wanted her to record in traditional "female" genres, such as cumbia. But Shakira, who says she has known exactly what she wanted to do since she "could hold a pencil," steadfastly refused and recorded her own pop-rock compositions. "In rock 'n' roll I have always felt free," she says.

At 19, Shakira, who has often been compared in sound to Canadian rocker Alanis Morissette, was the top-selling female pop rocker in Latin America. Her 1996 release, "Pies Descalzos" (Bare Feet), sold 3.6 million copies, and the president of Colombia named her a national cultural ambassador, a title she shares with writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez; as such, she was received by the pope in Rome at age 20.

Confronted with Shakira's skyrocketing success, her longtime advisor Jairo Martinez approached Emilio Estefan, asking him to take over.

Shakira's first project with Estefan, "Donde Estan Los Ladrones," recorded last year in Estefan's Crescent Moon studios in Miami, has sold close to 3 million copies worldwide since its release last September.

She landed on the cover of Time magazine's international edition last summer and secured a deal with Pepsi for a Spanish-language commercial. The album was nominated for a Latin rock/alternative Grammy, and she is the only woman among the five nominees for album of the year in the Premio Lo Nuestro awards, Latin music's most prestigious honors ceremony, to be announced in May.

In the works is an English-language album, including many songs from "Ladrones" translated by Gloria Estefan, as well as some original songs. It's slated for release this summer on one of Sony's subsidiary labels, as yet to be determined.

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