SAN DIEGO — Shakira played a peekaboo performance with her fans Friday at the San Diego Sports Arena. The Colombian crossover sensation repeatedly popped up, vanished and reappeared in various incarnations during the opening night of her first world tour.
She first emerged from beneath an enormous cobra that raises its flared head as if charmed by the petite singer's famous midriff shimmy. Later, she ascended from beneath the stage sitting behind a drum kit, keeping a credible rock beat for a few bars. At another point, she ventured onto an elevated side platform and impersonated a stripper, writhing on the railings dangerously near the crowd, which turned a tad unruly the next time she got that close.
In a recent interview, the ambitious singer-songwriter explained that she lets "the real Shakira come out" only while performing. But during Friday's extravagantly staged affair, complete with shooting flames and deafening explosions, you wished the real Shakira would just sit still long enough to let us get to know her.
Is she a full-throttle rocker or a bleached-blond Latina diva? A teen queen or a rebel with a biting social message? A graceful belly dancer or a honky-tonk woman blowing a mean harmonica (she played a few bars on that instrument as well)?
Shakira, who performs Tuesday at the Arrowhead Pond and Wednesday at Staples Center, showed all those sides in a two-hour show that was like a shotgun blast in the dark. In the end, you felt stunned, but not enlightened.
Most people in the U.S. discovered Shakira just a year ago when she released her first English-language album, "Laundry Service." The 25-year-old beauty from Barranquilla mesmerized American audiences with her sultry, bare-bellied performance for the video of her first hit single, "Whenever, Wherever."
The album, which has sold 10 million copies worldwide, is a polished yet edgy collection of pop love songs with quirky lyrics, catchy melodies and rock guitars, her main instrument. Shakira perfected her English to write her own lyrics. But her themes have that same ring of real-life relationships that infused her Spanish work over the past decade.
Of all her Colombian contemporaries emerging from the alternative music scene (Juanes, Cabas, Carlos Vives), Shakira has the least connection to native forms such as cumbia or vallenato. Her new album features only light Latin touches: an Andean pan flute here, an Argentine accordion there.
That stylistic consistency allows her to divide her show naturally between her English and Spanish compositions: Eight from the new album and eight from her two previous Spanish releases, 1998's "Donde Estan Los Ladrones?" and 1995's "Pies Descalzos."
To her credit, Shakira has not abandoned her Middle Eastern identity (as she did her father's Lebanese surname, Mubarak). Because her big U.S. push came in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, some predicted that she'd be forced to downplay the Arab influence in songs such as "Ojos Asi," included on the new album in an English translation by Gloria Estefan titled "Eyes Like Yours."
On Friday, the barefoot Shakira boldly opened with that song in Spanish, drawing excited cheers every time she shook her hips like a belly dancer. Several young female admirers in the overwhelmingly Latino crowd wore hip scarves decorated with coins or tassels, like Shakira's. (Only a handful, however, bleached their hair like the star, a natural brunette.)
Not only did Shakira not shy away from her heritage, she also used her concert to deliver an anti-war message that skewered both President Bush and Saddam Hussein. While she sang "Octavo Dia," a snarling indictment of world conditions that she wrote years ago, a grainy video portrayed the two leaders as puppets playing a hostile game of chess. As the song reached an alarming crescendo of wailing electric guitars, the puppeteer was revealed to be the Grim Reaper.
It was a powerful protest, reinforced by the masks of political figures worn by her nine-piece rock band. And it was a sign that Shakira wants her new fans to take her seriously.
"They've seen the external aspect of me as an artist," she said recently in Miami, where she lives with her parents. "They've seen me shaking my butt around. They've seen me on covers of magazines. I think I've called their attention. But now it's time to make this relationship deeper, and based on things that will make it last
Shakira said she was surprised that the U.S. and British public quickly turned her into a sex symbol, putting her on the covers of men's magazines. "For a second, I was like, 'Hmmm, really? Am I that sexy?' Of course, I enjoyed it. I felt flattered. It was fun, but then after a while it just gets boring. I'm a little sick of that. And I want to move on."