In a political fix? Call Shakira!

His poll ratings are tumbling, his MPs rebelling - but Gordon Brown found time last night to engage in telephone diplomacy with Colombia's best-known singer. Jonathan Brown reports on a star that every politician wants to be associated with
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Indy Politics

There was a defining moment in the life of Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll, one which both her army of devoted fans and her impressive publicity machine agree indicated that the world had a huge star on its hands.

Aged just seven, Shakira was accompanying her family to a Middle Eastern restaurant in her home town – the steamy Colombian port city of Barranquilla. As the Arabic drums started to pulse and the restaurant's in-house belly dancers took to the stage, up leapt the little girl, overtaken by a "natural instinct", she later recalled, "to move my hips and twirl my belly to the sound of the doumbek. I fell in love with the sensation of being on stage."

It was the kind of extravagant, spontaneous gesture of which, his critics say, Gordon Brown is famously incapable. At the same age, growing up in the chilly climes of the Fife town of Kirkcaldy on the Firth of Forth, the future British prime minister would have been spending his days swotting at school, playing rugby and listening to his father's sermons.

Last night, however, these two lives – the dour world of the son of the manse turned career politician, and the decidedly more exotic one of the sultry Latin singer-dancer – came together in a phone call to discuss the plight of the world's poorest children's education. Along with the president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, the unlikely pairing is calling on the world's governments to provide basic schooling for the 300 million young people currently missing out on any kind of formal lessons.

Today, Shakira, now 31, will be banging the drum once more, this time in Washington DC where she will be joined by congressional politicians and students from across the country seeking to raise awareness for the bipartisan Education For All Act passed last year, which calls on President George Bush to address the challenge of providing children across the globe with access to equal education.

Mr Brown, despite his professed preference for policy substance over presentation, has become increasingly aware of the stardust that celebrities can sprinkle over subjects often considered too worthy or dull to penetrate the consciousness of the general public. In recent months and years he has bonded with Bono over African debt, discussed Darfur with George Clooney (the man his wife, Sarah, would choose to play him in a film of his life) while talking breast cancer recovery with Kylie Mingoue.

But in Shakira, Mr Brown is hitching his wagon to someone who shares not only his famous sense of moral purpose and extraordinary workrate – she regularly notches up 40,000 air miles a month and can talk her way through 40 interviews a day, rarely touching on the same subject twice – but also embodies the Prime Minister's admiration for allowing talent to flourish.

Those who write off Shakira as some kind of Hispanic Britney Spears are very much mistaken, according to Phil Stanton, a co-founder of the World Music Network and an authority on Colombian music. "There is a real musical intelligence in her work. She has some very good ideas and a real musical brain. She has been a recording artist for many years. She started out as a child star and has been building up her career ever since, becoming a phenomenon in Latin America and the Spanish-speaking world. She is incredibly professional. When the moment came she was absolutely ready for it," he says.

Today Shakira, one of nine children of a Lebanese businessman who moved to Colombia, is worth about $38m, making her the world's fourth highest grossing female singer, according to Forbes magazine, after Madonna, Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion. She is also the biggest-selling Spanish singer of all time, feted by politicians and fans alike and one who enjoys a unique popularity among the children of the world, particularly young girls in her native continent.

But her success was anything but overnight. Following the evening in the restaurant her career struggled to get off the ground. She was turned down for the choir at her convent school by nuns who feared her precocious vibrato made her sound "like a goat" though it seems they encouraged her love of belly dancing, deeming it cultural rather than profane.

After having successfully ambushed a record company executive in the lobby of a motel on Barranquilla she signed a three album deal. But the first two albums bombed.

By 15 she had left school and was living in Bogota, appearing in downmarket soap operas. She found herself at the centre of attention for hardly the best of artistic reasons, topping a magazine poll for possessing the finest bottom on television.

Breakthrough came with her third album, Pies Descalzos (Bare Feet), which sold four million albums across Latin America. But at that time no one singing in Spanish could lay claim to universal stardom, not least because the holy grail of the United States marketplace simply refused to yield to singers offering a non-English vocal.

The answer was to record an album in English and Spanish – Servicio De Lavanderia, or Laundry Service. Critics claimed and continue to suggest that her work in English, learnt it is said from rhyming dictionaries and the poetry of Leonard Cohen, still appears brittle and weak alongside that of her native tongue. But this did not prevent her signing with the impresario Freddy DeMann, who helped launch the careers of Michael Jackson, Madonna and Alanis Morissette.

The dual-language, follow-up albums, Oral Fixation Volumes 1 and 2 (Fijacion Oral), which she promoted with a vast world tour, earned her a clutch of Grammys and MTV Awards.

Despite having quit her native Colombia for the more genteel comforts of Miami's Key Biscayne, in the heartland of her American fan base, she remains a hero in her homeland. "Colombians are tremendously nationalistic and look up to any of their national figures if they are successful. Of course some people may disapprove of her but the vast majority are 100 per cent behind her," explained Mr Stanton.

One rather unexpected admirer is Colombia's foremost literary talent, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Nobel laureate was deeply enamoured with the young singer and was in no doubt she was a gift to mankind. "With the face of a perfect young girl, and her deceptive frailty, she always had the absolute certainty she would be a public personality of world renown. She did not know in what art or in what manner, but she did not have a shadow of doubt, as if she were condemned to a prophecy," the writer opined in one lavish profile.

National solidarity brought the two together again last year when Shakira was personally asked by Marquez to compose music for the film adaptation of Love in the Time of Cholera. Shakira was invited to appear in it but turned down the role after finding out that it involved nudity.

Her music, however, has been welcomed for incorporating wider aspects of Colombia's cultural heritage, notably referencing the instruments of the country's indigenous populations. One track, "Despedida", was nominated for a Golden Globe.

Shakira has also drawn praise for helping dispel the country's violent image. "When people write about Colombia there is a knee-jerk reaction to talk about drugs and violence," says Mr Stanton. "But Bogota is transforming and is now a relatively peaceful city and the economy is improving. There is a lot of violence that goes on but it is mainly between those who are involved in illegal things." It is a state of affairs that has not inspired any great wave of musical protest. "Some artists are tackling political themes but the music is generally about having a good time though sometimes they play with lyrics that have more than one meaning," Mr Stanton adds.

But the singer is no stranger to the Latin American political process in all its volatility. Though she was romantically linked with the Irish actor Colin Farrell, her regular squeeze since 2000 has been Antonio de la Rua, the son of the former Argentinian president Fernando de la Rua. De la Rua Snr was forced from office by huge demonstrations at the height of the country's financial crisis in 2001, when rioters called on his famous prospective daughter-in-law to help pay off the national debt. The former president was accused last year by a federal judge of failing to prevent the killing of five protesters during the riots, raising the prospect of a highly embarrassing trial which could coincide with the widely anticipated wedding of his son and the star.

But the incident seems to have done little to tarnish the Shakira brand. Her own charity, the Pies Descalzos Foundation, has been raising money for Colombia's poorest children since 1997, and she has performed in London for the Prince's Trust, at the Paris leg of the Live 8 concert and in Germany for last year's Live Earth environmental extravaganza. And as a Unicef goodwill ambassador she has visited Bangladesh and El Salvador to campaign for children hit by a recent cyclone and whose lives are blighted by violence.

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