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"Barranquilla is my land, my people, my family, my friends..."
"I am a walking contradiction. A mix of elements that come from far and different worlds." That was how our artist described herself a couple of years ago, and she went on to explain: "But these elements are not in conflict, they coexist peacefully. I accept all of the contradictions within me and they accept one another." And no city could better represent Shakira's soul than the city where she was born. Just like her persona, in Barranquilla disparate and distant elements coexist in harmony and mutual respect.
Bathed by the Caribbean waters and visited by almost countless merchants since the colonial era, Shakira's home is one of the most joyful and vibrant cities in Colombia. Barranquilla is the most important port in the country, through which tons of coffee and petroleum are imported and exported, and through which almost every race in the world has passed. Since its founding in the seventeenth century, the city has grown with a mixture of three races: the Indigenous, the Spaniard, and the African. But during the last one hundred years this area was the final destination of immigrants from various countries and cultures, among them German, Jewish, Italian, Irish, Chinese, Lebanese, and Palestinian. They settled peacefully, having nothing to lose just dreams to fulfill, in search of a better life. With time, these cultures began to settle in, leaving their marks in the architecture, the music, and the food, whether in the construction of a new synagogue, the proliferation of Chinese laundromats, or the aroma of fried arepas and barbecued sausages.
These communities began to expand and integrate, making this beautiful coastal region a privileged center that earned the nickname "the golden door" or "carrumba the beautiful," an imaginative city, economically active and tolerant of differences. "The Barranquillero is a simple, open, and hard-working person. He knows how to live life but isn't a fanatic. He won't kill himself over politics or religion...When it comes to soccer, however, they will kill anyone," joked one Caribbean Colombian in describing her people. "Barranquilla is a melting pot of many nationalities, which is why the people assimilate foreign cultures rather than fight them," she said.
No other event exhibits this cultural mix with as much splendor as Carnival: the ultimate party. Once a year, men, women, and children take to the streets dressed in colorful costumes and makeup for the parade of floats and to dance, to play the drums, and to celebrate rambunctiously in the purest Caribbean spirit. During Carnival, anything goes and the sky's the limit when it comes to the imagination: there are parodies and political satires, there are carnival queens and traditional songs...The days of Carnival are wild, the streets are packed, and no one is left out. During these four days, rich and poor are equals, and the only law is fun.
Religious festivals are celebrated with the same passion. Even though each religion celebrates in its own way, the majority of the population in Barranquilla is Catholic, and thousands of families get together to celebrate Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Perhaps as another example of integration, the faith brought by the Spaniards is practiced today by members of other communities that were not Catholic originally, like much of the Arab community. This includes Shakira's family, who are Lebanese but practice the Catholic faith while retaining many of their Arabic customs, such as music and food.
Unlike Bogotá and Medellín, Barranquilla is a peaceful city that remains far removed from political intrigue and drug trafficking. Barranquilleros didn't experience the constant terrorist attacks and the political kidnapping that gave Colombia such a bad reputation, especially during the nineties. As if the closeness to the sea tamed the beast, Barranquilla did not have to endure the fear of the almost daily exploding car bombs or the horrendous assassinations of powerful officials. As many residents proudly point out about this city, Barranquilla is tolerant and "Caribbean."
Perhaps because of the latter, when this city is not working, it's partying or socializing till all hours of the night. Its residents live according to the city's own schedule, very calmly, as though savoring the day. After all, a large part of the year they live in a humid heat, more suitable for chatting while drinking a cool soda than working up a sweat while running for the bus.
In this privileged urban center, within the harsh reality of Colombia, Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll was born on Wednesday, February 2, 1977, in the Clínica Asunción de Barranquilla. Daughter of a respected jeweler of Lebanese descent, Don William Mebarak Chadid, and his Colombian wife, Nidia Ripoll Torrado, the child was the couple's blessing and their only daughter. In naming the newborn, Nidia had shuffled through several names containing the letter "k" to go well with the sound of the "k" in Mebarak. She had considered Karime and Katiuska but finally chose Shakira, an Arabic name derived from the word shukram, which means "grace." The most literal translation is "woman full of grace," even though Shakira has said she identifies more with its second meaning, "grateful."
Colombians said that the newborn was chubby and had curly hair, thick eyebrows, and a healthy set of lungs. What nobody knew was that those lungs would inscribe her name in music history.
Her People and Her Family
"I come from a traditional society, not only because I went to a Catholic school, but because I was raised in a house that is half Arabic and half Barranquillera, in a small coastal city."
According to Colombian reporters, Don William Esteban Mebarak Chadid was born in New York City, but shortly after he was born his family moved to Barranquilla. Nidia Ripoll Torrado, on the other hand, was born in Barranquilla and has Catalan blood. When they married Don William was divorced and already had seven children from his previous marriage. So Shakira came into this world as the youngest child with quite a few siblings willing to spoil her.
Don William has been a key figure in Shakira's formation and sensibility. Proud of his Lebanese roots, he was a professional jeweler and a vocational writer. According to the magazine TV y Novelas Colombia, during his days as a jeweler he built his clientele and was able to maintain a jewelry store in Barranquilla for almost two decades. But shortly after Shakira was born he had already liquidated that business and was just selling watches close to where he lived. Nidia was the homemaker and by closely minding her daughter, she was the one who first suspected the little one's artistic tendencies.
Don William's passion for literature and all things intellectual and artistic made Shakira grow up surrounded by all kinds of books and Arabic music, but it may have been because of Nidia's religious fervor that the child came to know the Bible. In Shakira's own words, her parents are very different but complement each other: "My father is idealistic, my mother realistic, and because of that, in my home I find both earth and air. My father is the insanity and my mother the sanity."
For many years the couple belonged to a social club where the families of the Lebanese community would get together and enjoy their traditions through food, dance, and music. This was one of the places where the Mebarak family socialized and it is where Shakira began to taste Arabic dishes and observe from a young age how the hips of the dancers moved.
The Mebaraks made a good living. They were a middle-class family able to send their only daughter to a good Catholic school and to pay for private lessons in singing, modern dancing, and modeling. They kept a nice house in the northern part of Barranquilla and had the luxuries of a family that knew how to make the best of simple things. But beyond material abundance, William and Nidia raised their daughter with Christian values and were attentive to her every need: they knew how to listen to the desires of the restless and curious child and quickly realized that she would not have an ordinary life.
When Shakira was a child, Nidia discovered that she had a gift for writing. According to Colombian columnists, the child knew the alphabet by the age of eighteen months, at three she knew how to read, and by the time she was four she was ready for school. It seemed as though she might have been a child prodigy. At least that's what Nidia believed, so she had her academically tested to determine if the little girl was a genius.
Shakira lived alone with her parents, though it was quite frequent for her half siblings to come over, be it to baby-sit or to play with her, since they lived only a few blocks away. That may be why when Shakira talks about her family she includes her brothers and sisters (omitting the "half") as well as her parents. Of all her father's children, Shakira never met her oldest half brother, because he died before she was born. Her oldest sister, Lucy, is a surgeon living in Colombia, like most of her siblings. Next is Alberto, a lawyer who lives in Barranquilla and got married in January 2001. Moisés, also married, is the third child. Tonino is the fourth child and the closest to Shakira, having worked for many years as her road manager. Tonino was going to follow in his father's footsteps but found that Shakira's success promised him a more entertaining career. He is married and has a little girl who is Shakira's goddaughter. "As the youngest, she is the pampered one in the family. She's not spoiled but knows exactly what she is doing and has a great disposition," he told a Colombian magazine a few years ago.
Following Tonino is Patricia, who lives in Spain and is a special education teacher. And finally, there is Antonio and Edward, the youngest, who lives in Miami.
Probably because of her Catholic upbringing or having grown up among so much affection, family has a sacred meaning to Shakira. She is extremely proud of her family nucleus, an entity that gives her strength and joy, the circle that nourishes her during her moments of searching. Asked about their family dynamics, Don William seized the opportunity to speak of Shakira's generosity with her brothers and sister: "She paid for Lucy's medical school, she pays Edward's schooling in the United States, she bought Alberto a car, and she employed Tonino as her representative."
But before she came into the active and complex existence she has today, Shakira's childhood was tranquil, filled with the adventures and discoveries of just another Barranquillera.
A Childhood between the Neighborhood and the Beach
"I remember having very loving parents, with whom I always had great communication. I remember that I would pray to God singing."r
The Mebaraks lived in a neighborhood called El Limoncito, a safe family suburb where people knew one another by name. In the afternoons the boys would play soccer in the streets and the girls would get together on the sidewalks, or mixed groups would play cops and robbers. Sometimes they would simply be in one another's houses doing one of the numerous activities that children do when they have their whole lives in front of them.
Shakira's childhood was full of strong relationships with neighbors and friends, some of which have lasted. In fact today when she is asked if she has many friends she always and frankly answers no, that she could count all of her friends on just one hand and they are the same ones she had when she was growing up in Barranquilla. In her neighborhood she built relationships that have lasted years, and she is still friends with some of her neighbors to this day.
One of her best friends while growing up was Vanesa Vengoechea, who was interviewed years ago by TV y Novelas. When they were children they used to play in the street, get ready for parties together, and watch movies at each other's houses. She remembers it was rare to see Shakira sad. She was very good at listening to problems and giving advice, Vanesa told a Colombian magazine, but even though they both would talk a lot about their issues, what they loved most was going out. "Our favorite plans were going to the beach or playing volleyball," she said. On the weekends they would meet at Vanesa's house to watch movies until late into the night. Among Shakira's favorite movies were horror flicks: she loved to be scared half to death. The problem, said Vanesa, was that Shakira would always talk during the movie, making some sort of observation. "And when it was over she would want to talk about the plot, but rarely found anyone up for it." Restless and articulate, Shakira always had something to say.
The little Mebarak loved carnivals, dances, french fries, Coca-Cola, and the patacones (fried plantains) that "El Viejo Paco" fired up at the Vengoecheas' house. According to Paola, Vanesa's sister, Shakira loved parties, but other than óscar, her first boyfriend, no one liked to go with her, because "Doña Nidia made her come home early, before midnight." According to this family, our artist remains unchanged, just as simple and happy as before. However, now when she stops by for a visit, she wears a wig and dark glasses to prevent her fans from recognizing her.
The rest of her neighbors who still live in El Limoncito also remember her as happy and lively, regularly sitting on her doorstep with her guitar. "She never took off her uniform when she got home from school, but she did take off her socks and shoes. Sometimes you would see her walking barefoot alone around the block and other times with her group of friends."
Like every good coastal girl, Shakira spent much of her time outside. "I would play with boys and that helped me in the long run, because in this career one has to deal with a lot of men," she acknowledged years later.
To find the more feminine side of Shakira, one would have to go inside her house. In her room she played with dolls like any girl her age. While she made up stories about her dolls, her father would re-create other ones. As an avid lover of music and of words, Don William spent a great part of his day in front of his typewriter creating stories and poems. And even though he was in his own world, Shakira would observe him without missing a detail. "The image of him writing was so strong," said Shakira as an adult, "that I wanted to be like him." And that was how she started to imitate him, first in her gestures, and later mentally: starting a short time after learning how to write, she would lock herself in her room, surrounded by teddy bears and dolls, and write poetic passages that she would later recite to her parents.
In addition to her father's example, Shakira's mind was nourished by the stories her mother read to her as a child and the books she started reading as soon as she was able. Her first book was Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, a gift from her father. One can only imagine the fantasies that this story might have awakened in the adventurous mind of this child from the Caribbean Sea. But the book she talks about most is The Prophet by the Lebanese Kahlil Gibran, which she says has influenced her profoundly. The third book that Shakira remembers from her childhood is the Bible. And not just from parochial school; Nidia read the Bible every single day, and this had a lasting influence on Shakira.
Accompanying these books were the sounds of records playing in her home. In addition to the Arabic music that her father played, she listened to Donna Summer and Miguel Bosé. Not only did she admire Miguel Bosé's voice, he "was like my platonic love," she said later. She adored the lyrics of his songs and felt that love that is inspired by singers when their music reaches the heart of listeners.
So this is how Shakira grew up: in a room filled with Barbie dolls and teddy bears, as well as a guitar and a volleyball. In a corner of that same room she prepared a workstation, with a little chair and a table, so she could sit comfortably as she composed her poems. From the time she was four years old, her hours were spent at school, the beach, and parties, between the street and her house or her friends' houses, surrounded by coastal scents, a mixture of salty air and ripe pineapples. Between the sand and the sea, facing a distant horizon that one day she would go out and conquer.
Discovering Her Calling
"The nuns were very open-minded, at least to the extent that their environment allowed it..."
By the time she was two years old, Shakira already knew the alphabet, and by three, she already knew how to write more that her name, but the law did not permit her to begin school at such a young age. However, as soon as she turned four, this mischievous and restless little person began preschool in one of the most prestigious institutions in the city.
La Enseñanza de Barranquilla, a traditional school in the city founded and administered by missionary nuns from the Order of Mary, was not just where Shakira learned her arithmetic and her geography, but also where she began to learn the Catholic faith, a cornerstone of her formation. In these cloisters, between religion classes and drawing assignments, between numbers and vowels, the tiny hurricane began to discover aspects of her personality that she did not know existed -- or rather, that nobody knew existed.
Because she was short, Shakira was always the first in any line. She loved that because she loved attention, and that was the easiest way to get it. But shortly after starting school, she found a more original and legitimate way to become the center of attention. As she often says, dancing was her first way of expressing herself. "My first encounter with dance was when I was four years old and I began to belly dance." What is curious is that no one had taught her. "It's proof that a collective, genetic memory really does exist, because as long as I've been aware, as soon as I hear the beat of a derbeque my hips begin to move instantly, without any effort at all."
This episode, which Shakira now describes calmly, astonished her parents and her teachers. No one had ever taught her how to do the Arab dance, but her sixth sense incorporated what she had seen in the Arabic social club where she used to go with her family. That Friday, when she danced in front of her schoolmates, her teachers, and her mother, she discovered her inner diva and saw that she had a captive audience. She enjoyed moving her diminutive hips to the Eastern rhythms so much that every Friday she would do the same number religiously in a civic show held by the school. The draw that the stage had for the little dancer was uncontrollable, and fortunately no one tried to stop her -- though she now recalls, between laughs, that she bored her schoolmates practically to tears.
The truth was that beyond the dance, what Shakira was looking for was attention. And however she got it was fine. "I had the profound need to be noticed," she concluded later.
Even though Shakira got good grades in school, she was not a star student. "In school Shakira was sensible and disciplined, but also absentminded," recalled María Claudia Manotas, another old friend, who is now an audiologist. "Sometimes in class she just didn't pay attention. She immersed herself in writing lyrics on the back of her notebook. But even so, she had the capacity to catch on to everything very quickly, because whenever the teacher would catch her, she would look up at the board and almost immediately figure out where we were." She goes on to say, "Recess was sacred to Shakira: as soon as the bell rang she was the first one to run and get in line for the cafeteria. I remember her drinking Pepsi with a pastry with dulce de leche....But she got annoyed if you asked her for some."
Back then, the little girl dreamed of becoming an astronaut and working for NASA. Though she had a reputation for daydreaming, Shakira was very aware of what was happening around her. She was intuitive and even had a head for business. She would never go hungry, as they say. Don William, who attributes that talent to her Lebanese blood, said one day, "When she was a child she made a handwritten newspaper, which she designed on her own with gossip from school. She sold it to her classmates until one day one of the nuns discovered it and confiscated the copies!"
While this anecdote describes the sixth sense that she was already developing for business, Shakira was not destined to become a newspaper reporter or a businesswoman. Back then no one knew what she would become, not even her mother, who watched her development more closely than anyone. Ever since her daughter started to belly dance Nidia knew that she was raising someone out of the ordinary. "She started to become obsessed with science, she ended up convincing us that she might become a researcher," says Nidia. "But then she would lock herself in the room day and night, writing stories and poems. She tricked us again when we thought we might have a writer for a daughter. But then I discovered that the writer part was just the first step, and what she was writing was the lyrics to her songs."
The fact that the child had an artistic vocation was very clear. The same artistic blood that expressed itself for the first time in belly dance returned to knock on the doors of her imagination when she learned to write. Wanting to imitate her father, she would lock herself in her room with pen and paper and write. She wrote stories and poems, always in the same corner of her room, in that workstation she had prepared, and always with the same concentration. No one really knew what Shakira was writing about, but a few times, after being locked up for hours, the budding author would go to her parents and read them her work. And they always listened.
Shakira admired her father and imitated him. But there was something else in the figure of her father that she could not understand. And this had to do not with his vocation as a writer but with something much more physical.
Don William wore sunglasses that were not only dark but also particularly big, and to a little girl, huge. Seeing her father hide behind those big glasses so impressed Shakira that she decided to exorcise her fear in a song. And thus, "Tus gafas oscuras" ("Your Dark Glasses") was born, her first poem set to music. With the ingenuity of someone trying to solve a mystery and find hidden treasure, Shakira discovered that she could write songs. "At the age of eight I discovered that poetry and music make the perfect marriage," she now recalls. That day when she wrote her first song, the muse had been her father. But after this first step, her muses were now in the street, in life, and in her reflections. After that first encounter, Shakira found inspiration in many people and events, in falling in love and, above all, in falling out of love.
After "Tus gafas oscuras" another song came, and a few months later another one, and then another. In school, at the beach, or walking by herself through the neighborhood, barefoot and still in her uniform, words, phrases and ideas came to her. Later on she would lock herself in her room and put them to music with her guitar.
Around then, it began to dawn on Nidia that the child had talent and had to channel it in some form. Nidia's intuition was on target: this little girl was an artist. And her talents were not limited to the belly dancing she'd been doing since age four. Here is where Nidia's role becomes crucial in Shakira's future: without letting much time go by, she took her daughter to her first singing lessons and became the person who most encouraged her.
In addition to her education and voice training, Shakira began to fashion her body for the stage. When she was ten Nidia enrolled her in an academy in Barranquilla called Passarela for her first modeling course. She learned how to apply her own makeup, fix her hair, and walk gracefully. She also took classes in modern dance and movement. As she made new friends she got a taste of what life was like for children who train from a young age to be famous. That was also where Shakira learned the importance of aesthetics. There she learned how to smile for the camera and maintain her posture, to pay attention to her clothes, and to take care of her body. And perhaps it was during her days at Passarela that she acquired the habit of being extremely careful about her image when photographed.
But not everything was a lesson for the young artist. By the end of her first decade, the little girl began to put into practice everything she had learned inside the four walls of her classrooms. Around the time she was attending classes at Passarela, she was already dancing in various places, and her parents were acting as her managers. They both, but especially Nidia, encouraged her to participate in her first singing competition. When she turned ten she won her first trophy, and from then on there wasn't a competition that Shakira would miss, whether in school or on stage, before television cameras or away from them. If Nidia or William could take her, the little girl was there. And frequently, Shakira came home with a trophy.
This small competitive circuit that Nidia and Shakira entered when the little girl was just ten years old formed the foundation of her career. This was not only because Shakira was infatuated with the stage and was discovering herself as an artist, but also because she was making her first contacts inside the industry.
Mother and daughter would roam the hallways of television studios, knocking on doors and getting in line for auditions. According to people who knew Shakira in the beginning, no one had as much faith in her as her parents. If Don William was her intellectual guide in songwriting, Doña Nidia was her spiritual mentor. It was her perseverance that opened doors for Shakira. As the artist said, "My mother was a driving force. She detected my restlessness and stimulated it." Her mother was attentive to the artistic talent that her daughter was demonstrating, first in dance, then in writing, and later on in music. As soon as she realized that she had an extraordinary child, Nidia encouraged her to develop her talents. As in the Bible's parable of talents, Nidia was stimulating her into multiplying and sharing them. And that is precisely what Shakira is doing today.
The First Frustration
Though Shakira's talent was undeniable to the Mebaraks, there was one person who did not agree. It was none other than Shakira's music teacher, a man that Shakira would remember her whole life. When Shakira attended elementary school she tried to join the school choir. However, when the choir members were chosen, Shakira was left out. The reason? According to the teacher, her voice was like the "bleating of a goat" and threw the group off key.
This incident affected Shakira greatly. That day in school she didn't say a word, as if she didn't care. But when she got home she cried, angry and hurt. Her artistic pride had taken a blow just when she was getting started. Luckily, she could turn to her parents, who believed in her talent. They consoled her and cheered her up that night. But even back then, Shakira could count on a virtue that she still possesses: determination. She wanted to sing, and no one was going to stop her. She was going to show that teacher who Shakira was.
The singing and modeling classes were helpful when it came to facing new audiences, especially outside of school. When Shakira performed in youth competitions, her vibrato voice, which had annoyed the music teacher so greatly, was a revelation to the judges. It was an original compared to the soft voices of the other elementary-school girls and boys. With her raw talent on the stage, Shakira won her first trophy at the age of ten and her first major local trophy a year later.
This last one was an award from the television show "Vivan los niños," where Shakira competed against other young talents from around the country. Far from being a frivolous, local competition, this competition was broadcast in various cities on the station Telecaribe of Colombia. And when Shakira returned to compete the following two years, she won first prize two more times. In between, the Barranquillera also competed in the Niña Atlántico beauty contest, where her little face and style earned her the place of first runner-up.
During those years of early success and local recognition, Shakira never forgot the music teacher. After each triumph, she would take her trophy to school and invariably parade it in front of him.
When she started being famous outside of school, the music teacher asked her to join the school choir. She said no. She never did join the choir.
Copyright © 2001 by Laura Dail Literary Agency, Inc.