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?

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a Times staff writer

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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While several Latin pop stars have crossed over to the mainstream American pop market, such as Julio Iglesias and now Ricky Martin, no Latin American rock star has ever done it. Ritchie Valens was an American. Carlos Santana was born in Jalisco, Mexico, but had moved to the U.S. before starting his rock career. Los Lobos is an American band. Other Latino Americans have been successful in English rock, but never anyone from Latin America whose success began there.

Rock in Spanish from Latin America has been gaining in popularity and sophistication for the past 10 years, but it is Shakira who promises to be Latin America's first significant rock crossover act.

Angelo Figueroa, editor of People En Espanol and a longtime radio host and musician from Detroit, describes Shakira's crossover potential as "amazing" and compares her to Jewel. Gloria Estefan says Shakira reminds her of a younger, more poetic version of herself, and says that "the genre of music she does really fits well for English. Rock music and English go together."

There are those, however, who have argued that Shakira is not rock at all, but pop. Her nomination for a Grammy in the Latin rock/alternative category this year drew no shortage of criticism. Shakira is aware of the controversy and is no longer bothered by it.

"I've always been like the girl no one wants to invite to the party. For those who make pop music, I'm a rocker. For those who make rock, I'm a pop singer. No one has ever really wanted to include me in their genre. But I like being there, in that species of limbo. Because even though the line is very thin, it's very long. I can move with liberty there. There are those who would not forgive Mick Jagger if he stopped wearing tight pants for one day. But the same people love it when Madonna changes her hair color every month. I like to be right in the middle, somewhere between Mick Jagger and Madonna."

These may at first seem strange words coming from a churchgoing young woman who still lives with the parents she describes as her best friends, and claims to have no time for a love life.

But Shakira, described by Estefan as "extremely well-adjusted, happy and family-oriented," says she does not believe in rock stereotypes dictating an artist be miserable, bitter, suffering or on drugs.

This is not to say Shakira's records are happy. Her lyrics lean toward severe self-analysis, bruising tales of love gone wrong and poetic musings on the sorry state of the planet. Her melodies are unpredictable, percussive on the up-tempo songs and poetic on the ballads; and her harmonies and arrangements tend to have something dark and brooding about them, even when cloaked in funky backbeats.

The trick to writing such solemn material, especially as a happy person, is to observe the world closely, Shakira says. "I am inspired by reality in the same way a photographer is," she says. "A composer has to have the film loaded and open eyes. You have to let reality touch your senses. It is necessary to be vulnerable to everything and everyone."

Estefan says Shakira is rebellious, but that her rebellion comes not from searching for an identity, but rather from knowing precisely what she wants as a rock musician in "the very difficult world of Latin rock," where, he says, "it's hard for women to be respected."

"I think she represents the new generation of Latin women," Estefan says. "No more do Latin women have to be washing dishes. Gloria started it many years ago, but Shakira is the extension of what we started many years ago."

On the ever-present topic of machismo, Shakira is opinionated, but not in a predictable way.

"Well," she says, measuring her words carefully, "I think that for some women, machismo is a problem. For others, an advantage. It depends on the level of intelligence or the values the woman possesses. It could be one thing, or the other.

"I'd say I am neither a male chauvinist, nor a feminist. I am a humanist. I believe that women and men have always had equal rights. Those rights have always been there, waiting to be reclaimed. Some people are intelligent enough to reclaim them. Others, not as much."

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Shakira does not seem much interested in the state of women in the world, even in the Middle East of her grandparents, and does not seem to view herself in gender-specific terms at all. Shopping is of no interest to her; she has a stylist to do that for her. Her free time is spent reading; she averages two or three books a week. When asked about laws in some countries forbidding women to sing, she says, simply, "If I lived under such a rule, I would sing all the way to the guillotine."

Much more interesting for Shakira than oppression is the topic of artistic creativity and inspiration.

Shakira says she is constantly surprised when songs come out of her. She believes her inspiration "comes from a place outside of myself. I definitely do not think I am in possession of my creative energy, or that I have any control over it."

As she labors to describe how songs come through her, she knits her trademark arching brows in concentration and stares for a long while out the window.

"It's a little difficult to explain," she says. "I myself don't even understand it. It's a mystery. For me, there will always be three things that will be enigmas for me. One, how airplanes fly. Two, how you manipulate sounds on a console in a recording studio. And three, how songs are made. But I definitely believe that if I write, it's because God wants me to do so. Always. I always feel that when I write a song, a miracle has taken place." *

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On the Web

Listen to audio clips from Shakira's latest CD on Calendar Live! at

http://www.calendarlive.com

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