The Latina Rockera Explores Her Arabic Roots

By María Rebeca Castellanos

If you are familiar with rock en español, you are probably acquainted with Shakira, the Colombian phenomenon. If not, you will soon be: her English crossover album is coming out this summer. If you watched her perform on the 2000 Latin Grammy Show, you must have noticed that she did a belly dance routine.

Shakira, the Colombian Latina Rockera, is a musical genius who wrote her first song at eight years old. It was dedicated to her father, William Mebarak, whose Arabic heritage—he is Colombian of Lebanese origin—would come, years later, to play a role in the musical future of his daughter.

Shakira on MTV Unplugged 2000

Her beginnings with Sony are the stuff of legend. At age thirteen, Shakira and her father, without a formal introduction, approached an executive from the famous label in the lobby of a hotel. The contract was signed within days, and her first two albums, Magia (1990) and Peligro (1992), came out when she was thirteen and fifteen respectively. These two records, pop ballad style, were very successful and opened the door to television (soap operas) and the possibility to represent her country in the international song festival OTI (ultimately she could not participate because she did not fulfill the age requirement).

After recording one rock single for a compilation with other artists—of which her solo was the only track of the album to make the charts—she decided that this was the genre that suited her. Even though Sony executives tried to dissuade her, she stood her ground. The result was the tremendously successful Pies descalzos in 1995, when she was nineteen years of age, of which she either wrote or co-wrote all the lyrics. This album cemented her popularity internationally, selling more than four million records worldwide with four hit singles.

In 1998 Shakira recorded her best selling record ¿Dónde están los ladrones? with the famous producer and husband of Gloria Estefan, Emilio Estefan. This album was nominated for every single music award—including the Latin Grammy. She was featured on the cover of Newsweek, Time and Cosmopolitan, besides all the major magazines in Latin America. She did an ad for the Calvin Klein dirty jeans campaign that graced the billboards of Manhattan. She was named goodwill ambassador by her native country, Colombia, has been granted an audience to see the Pope, and has received fond comments from her compatriot, the Noble Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez.

When she was recording “¿Dónde están los ladrones?” at the Crescent Moon Studios of Emilio Estefan, in Miami, Florida, she asked for authentic Middle Eastern sound for the rock/pop song “Ojos así.” Emilio Estefan had heard Joe Zeytoonian play oud in Miami Beach, and had already enlisted his talents for recordings by Gloria Estefan, Jon Secada, Ana Gabriel and others. Emilio is from Cuba, but his father is Lebanese, and the sound of Joe’s oud was something familiar to him, making it a natural choice for “Osos Así.” As for percussion, the producers were already on the phone calling some Brazilian samba players when Joe suggested they call percussionist Myriam Eli, his partner in Harmonic Motion, a music and dance performance group based in south Florida that focuses on Middle Eastern and cross-cultural projects. Besides Myriam and Joe, other well-established Middle Eastern performers are featured in “Ojos así,” such as accordionist Fadi Hardan, who also provided background vocals in Arabic and helped translate the lyrics, singers Ossama Karaki and Nicholas Farhoury, and oud player Michelle Massad.

Shakira was in the studio providing input during the recording of the Middle Eastern elements. Joe Zeytoonian feels that Shakira’s Lebanese heritage gives her a feeling for Middle Eastern music:

The key in which that song is in is a very common key in Arabic and Turkish music. She “straightened” out the notes so they would all fall on the piano, so there are no notes “in between the cracks,” no quarter tones, but the movement in the music is very similar to Arabic and Turkish music. So I improvised a bunch of things across the track. Then they went back and listened to particulars, and had me refine lines. Then they decided what they were going to use and not going to use.

Myriam recorded dumbek, riq, and finger cymbals, and came back another day to record the opening zaggareets, which she did for an hour.

Besides playing dumbek and riq, Myriam is also a well known belly dancer and teacher. At the time of the recording, Joe and Myriam had been teaching and performing at the Florida Dance Festival, so the topic of dance was part of the conversation at recording sessions. It turned out that Shakira had loved the art form since she was a little girl, and had done a bit of dancing on her own. In an interview for the Miami Herald, she said that her first performance of any kind was belly dancing, instead of singing. During their conversations, Shakira became interested in guedra as well as raks sharki. Shakira asked for lessons from Myriam, and also asked her to create a belly dance segment with drum solo for “Ojos así.” Shakira uses these raks sharki movements in her routine, and during one part of the song where she is not singing, she goes down on her knees and starts doing guedra movements with the head and the hands. Myriam says of Shakira:

I wish all of my students were like that. She picks up quickly, she loves the music, and the moves look really good on her. She is a hard worker, a very hard worker. The first two lessons were private and then we met with choreographers from California… They choreographed one part of the song, around the beginning—which is more Michael Jackson-like movement—then I choreographed another part of the song. I thought that we were going to combine the two styles somehow, but it didn’t work that way. They did a part and I did a part, and that was it. I was trying to convince her to do the finger cymbals and something with the veil. But she has to sing, walk around, hold the microphone, and a million other things that she has to take into consideration.

After seeing Myriam dancing with a hip scarf during a lesson, Shakira inquired where she could get them. Myriam referred her to Joharah, a distributor and vendor based in Miami, who sold her several sashes and beaded scarves. She continues to wear hip scarves in her concerts on top of her customary leather pants. As for the braids that the reader may have seen Shakira wearing in her MTV video of “Ojos así,” they came out of a conversation in which Myriam told her about the hairstyle of guedra dancers. The cover of ¿Dónde están los ladrones? shows the singer wearing them (see picture in “Reviews” section of this issue).

“Ojos así” debuted live at big event put on by Sony at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, where Myriam and Joe performed with Shakira’s band. There were representatives from Sony there from all over the world. Joe remembers, “When I played, right away the two guys from Turkey and Greece came up to me and became very interested in what we were doing, and said that if we were going to be there (in Turkey or Greece) we should contact them.”

Miami dancer and instructor Tamalyn Dallal was asked to perform for the release party for the ¿Dónde están los ladrones? CD. Tamalyn and Monica, one of her dancers, without knowing much about the singer, went to the party, where they heard that she had wanted to celebrate her heritage by creating a song with strong Arabic flavor. As Tamalyn Dallal recounts, when they were asked to dance, the music they heard at first put them in a peculiar position, until a special song started:

[The music] was Spanish rock, with some Mariachi influence. Feeling quite ridiculous, we did as we were told, taking turns playing zills for each other… Soon, a marvelous song [“Ojos así”] came on… It was Arabic, Spanish, and very danceable. Shakira’s father lifted Monica and I onto the stage and we were very inspired in our performance.

Myriam accompanied Shakira on dumbek during the 1999 tour of Europe and Latin America.

Life on tour is very tiring: very few days to get to a lot of places; you don’t sleep a lot, you rehearse a lot, you play a lot. It made me a much stronger musician. One surprising thing about performing with Shakira was that the audience was very young. I wasn’t used to that. They were about high school age with an occasional older person. As soon as she comes on, they scream like crazy, and they scream the whole time. I am not used to that in the Middle Eastern world! With all the screaming, even though we have the monitors right there in front of us, sometimes we can’t hear the music ourselves, and sometimes they sing along with her and they are ahead or behind in the rhythm, so it is a little difficult to keep the music together. It is fun though; it is really a nice energy.

Shakira was invited by MTV to do an “Unplugged” concert, which was recorded last year in front of a live audience. This concert included new arrangements for ¿Dónde están los ladrones? songs, as well as a few of her hits from Pies Descalzos. This recording, released as an album, has sold millions of records and won the 2001 Grammy for Latin Pop Album of the Year. It has inspired her producer, Emilio Estefan, to prepare an English crossover version, to be released this summer.

In the 2000 First Latin Grammy award ceremony, Shakira performed “Ojos así,” the song that won her the award for Best Song in the Female Pop category. During the performance, aired on national television, American audiences saw her do a dance routine that included a belly dance drum solo. The customary beaded scarf adorned her hips. Myriam played dumbec for the Grammy performance, and says that they rehearsed the same song for ten days in a rehearsal studio, working all day everyday and sometimes into the night. One day before the event, they rehearsed at the Staples Center where it was going to be held:

We got to see Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Celia Cruz, Cristina Aguilera, Alejandro Fernandez, …(and) Tomatito [the famous flamenco guitarist]. One thing that was impressive was how quickly they prepared for the next band; because once you are done you have to get out of the way. Basically, 25 men run to you and tear everything off: microphone, chair, and the drum set, and there is another put up in no time and then you are ready for the next number. It was really impressive.

Since she was the only Middle Eastern percussionist in the band, Myriam taught some of the musicians how to play riq and zills. On the Shakira Unplugged CD, one of the guitar players is credited with playing zills. After the CD was recorded, guitar players were used to play the oud part, and for MTV Unplugged and the Grammies one of the guitarists played bouzouki. Myriam said that she found that kind of strange: “Bouzouki is not Middle Eastern at all, it is a Greek instrument. Just because it sounds a little exotic for the Western ear, they chose an instrument that is not Middle Eastern at all.”

Although “Ojos así” does contain a heavy Middle Eastern influence, it is essentially a pop song, and not truly Middle Eastern. Joe Zeytoonian points out:

The lines get fuzzy, especially in Latin pop, because it operates in 4 against 6 as a fundamental element in South American and Caribbean music, but it is also fundamental in Moroccan music, and it’s fundamental in Turkish music, and it’s fundamental in Iranian music. That 4 against 6 type of feeling is very common in many parts of the world, so wherever you are from you can identify with that. Pop recordings may use it for singers like Shakira from Colombia, but they also use that same percussion device for singing in Iran.

Some people feel really biased against popular music for that reason: if it is popular, it appeals to the masses and how could that be good? I feel the same way about recording “Ojos así” as about Kenny G recording “jazz.” A real jazz listener knows Kenny G is not a jazz player, but because he plays saxophone, he opens that world to millions of other listeners. Maybe someone who listens to that kind of music will go out and seek John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Jack DeJohnette, or whoever! It might stimulate them to go out and listen to someone who represents the base of that tradition. When a musical instrument is more familiar to them, people will open to more esoteric and “eclectic” styles.

The impact that “Ojos así” has had on the belly-dancing circuit is considerable. Tamalyn Dallal says that her classes have increased noticeably since the video of the song and the “Unplugged” performance were aired. She adds that after Shakira’s Miami concert last April, her beginners’ classes filled, and have remained so. Joharah says that the Latin music explosion is now combined with Arabic. She has many South American Arab customers who speak only Arabic and Spanish, and, “Shakira is everyone’s princess.” Dallal calls the singer “one of the greatest supporters of Mid-Eastern dance.” Myriam Eli sees this as a mixed blessing:

A lot of my students who are Latin think that Shakira’s song [“Ojos así”] is Middle Eastern, but it’s not. It is a pop song with Middle Eastern influence. So they want to do that song, or they want to dance it like that, or they want that music for their shows, and that’s fine. But I think it is important to study the tradition and become comfortable with the base, where it came from. Then do what Shakira did—take it somewhere else.

Although she may not be “preserving” Middle Eastern dance and music in the way that many professionals in the field might prefer, nevertheless Shakira has brought the sound and sight of belly dancing to millions. Here is a rock/pop princess doing an authentic choreography on national television! And she does an excellent job. She has done something extraordinary: she has introduced Middle Eastern dance and music into the mainstream.

María Rebeca Castellanos received her MA in Spanish Literature from Columbia University. She studied classical guitar and piano at the University of Florida, and has also studied flamenco and Middle Eastern dance. She now lives in Florida, where she works as a free-lance writer, having written for such journals as El Diario La Prensa (New York) and El Diario (Miami).

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.