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Shakira in pause mode

Forget the bustle. She embraces a gentle folk style for her songs for 'Love in the Time.'

November 17, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Shakira was sick of being a celebrity. Colombia's sensationally successful singer-songwriter had just come off her "Oral Fixation" tour earlier this year, taking her to 140 cities on five continents to perform for 2.5 million fans. But even stardom can be a drag.

So she put away her revealing sequined gowns and hip-hugging pants, donned jeans and sneakers, tucked her famous shock of dyed hair under a cap and went undercover as a summer student at UCLA. She enrolled in a history of Western civilization course under her middle and last names, Isabel Mebarak, telling clueless classmates she was just visiting from Colombia.

"Oh, it was such a respite for me," Shakira recalls. "I felt that need to put a brake on everything, to escape from the celebrity life and reclaim a normal life for a while. It was very healthy for me."

Her decompression from rock star to common coed was not just therapeutic, it coincided with the creative retreat she required to compose new songs for the film "Love in the Time of Cholera," which opened Friday. This is the first time she has written music for a movie, a challenge she assumed in honor of her compatriot, mentor and "dear friend," Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel laureate whose novel of love and irrational devotion is the basis for the movie.

The work marks a radical departure for Shakira, from flashy, electrified pop/rock to gentle, acoustic, Latin American folk styles. The songs -- a bolero and a traditional Andean tune -- are almost period pieces, tailored to the film's genteel setting in Cartagena circa 1900.

Shakira is arguably the most successful bicultural star Latin America has produced, and she's always been adept at straddling both English- and Spanish-speaking worlds with her seductive pop fusion that draws also on her Middle Eastern heritage. But these songs required her to tap into deep cultural roots, to reconnect with the music she was raised on in Barranquilla, music that still makes her cry and that instantly touches her soul, like a memory.

"It was refreshing, because it allowed me to leave the pop universe for a moment and not think about the Top 10 on the radio, and not think about . . . ." She pauses. "And simply not think. To just let the sensibility flow from those stories, let those Garcia Marquez metaphors connect with the deepest part of me, and allow the music to be born form all of that."

She is speaking in Spanish in the pastoral, equally genteel setting of a patio restaurant at the Bel Air Hotel. She looks relaxed and casual, wearing a tank top and jeans, her hair loose and a bit disheveled, showing dark roots under a dyed, reddish brown crown. She accentuates the color contrast by fidgeting with a long naturally dark strand that she pulls down along her neck and twirls at her shoulder.

Without much makeup, she looks more like that average girl in history class than a sultry superstar. Now 30, she appears somehow younger than when I first met her in 2001 on the eve of releasing her first English-language album, "Laundry Service," a smash that launched her global career. At that time, everything about her seemed more calculated -- her appearance, her poses, her wardrobe, her answers. Today, Shakira doesn't have much more to prove, so she can let her hair down, somewhat. When her handler signaled that time was up after only 20 minutes, she whispered conspiratorially with a coquettish chuckle, "We'll just steal a few more minutes." Then she went on to talk for an hour.

Colombia's image

Shakira, who writes her own songs in Spanish and English, speaks at times as if she's writing out sentences in long hand, like the character of Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem) writing his first love letter to the woman for whom he'd wait half a century, Fermina Urbino (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). It's as if she has an automatic editor in her brain, scanning for the right words, selecting, deleting, selecting again.

When she talks about Colombia, she taps into a florid Castilian that flows in long passages, like the novel, which she calls "one of the last great love stories of our time." The film's cool reviews seem beside the point in light of her passion for it as a vehicle to provide a positive image of her country, one not of guerrillas and drug lords but of "starry nights and long silences by the sea." "That is the Colombia I wanted to share," she says, "and for that I felt it was a privilege to be involved in this project."

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