The web enables us to choose the best cultural products from around the world. If this is true, why are sight barriers between continents still intact?

In September 1999, when surfing the website of the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, I came across a now defunct sub-site listing the "100 most prominent Colombians of the 20th century". Apart from the usual suspects from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Pablo Escobar, there were lots of men I had never heard of. Only five or six women made the list, and one of them, I couldn't help noticing, was born in 1977. What on Earth did she do to get into this Old Boys Club at the age of 22, I wondered. And then I read the short biography attached to it. And ordered her two CDs (Donde estan los ladrones and Pies Descalzos) from And had them glued to my CD player ever since.

For the next two years, "Sha-who?" was the typical response when I mentioned my favourite singer-songwriter, who was already a megastar in Latin America, but non-existent elsewhere. I had a glimpse of this paradoxical imbalance in the allegedly globalized music business when I travelled to Colombia in 2000. It felt like coming home in the sense that both the radio and the TV in my hotel room played my favourite music nearly all the time. I think it never took me more than three clicks on the remote to find her. On one memorable occasion I just meant to have quick flick through the channels before going to sleep and was rewarded with a full screening of her MTV unplugged concert.

This is how I found out about the belly dance moves that have now achieved notoriety in every country that the Sony corporation can reach. Back then, the dancing piece was the Arabian- inspired Ojos asi, which hadn't been one of my particular favourites in the beginning, but became one after that. (So much so that I now consider it a sacrilege that the English translation by Gloria Estefan was included in the new album, as Eyes like yours, and is probably going to be a globally bestselling single some time soon.)

Back in the UK I was in dire straits again, as the HMV alphabet simply didn't have anything between Shakespears Sister and Shalamar, and even the media hadn't heard her name, apart from one fleeting moment in June 2000 when she caused a political scandal in an economically shaken Argentina by going on expensive holidays with the son of the then president, Fernando de la Rua. In Germany and the Netherlands, at least, the bigger shops had her records, but by and large she was a non-entity in Europe. I claim to be the first person who mentioned her name in one of Germany's national newspaper, in an article about the malaria researcher and fellow Colombian Manuel Patarroyo, who at that stage took pride in noticing that his malaria vaccine made him more famous than Shakira. I guess that, a year and a half down the line, the tables have turned against him.

Meanwhile, in the US, a new awards ceremony branched out of the good old Grammys: In September 2000, the Latin Grammys were celebrated for the first time at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Apart from collecting two of the trophies (for her songs Octavo dia and Ojos asi), she treated the audience to "Ojos asi" complete with belly dancing. Whenever I mention this, I have this vision of the gala audience of thousands, sitting there quite unprepared, who for full three minutes and fifty-five seconds forget to close their mouths wondering what has hit them. By the next morning, her album Donde estan los ladrones had shot up into the top 20 of the sales ranking, and was also listed as the fastest riser. At the Los Angeles Times, someone takes a shine to her, as from now on, articles about her appear in regular intervals, predicting that she will be the next Latin star to conquer the mainstream market in the US. At the end of 2000, after years of hesitation, the artist is working on the English language album. After some delays, the release date for the US market settles for the 13th of November, 2001. By which time, of course, I've placed my order with I have to admit I had some misgivings beforehand, and for my own selfish pleasure would have preferred her to make another album in Spanish. Then again, not buying the album was never an option. If Shakira chose to set notes to the Bogota phone directory, I'd still buy the resulting record. This album with its nine English and four Spanish titles turned out better than I expected. Even though some of the English lyrics are a bit on the silly side, it manages to keep the old fans happy and win over new ones from the Britney Spears demographic (who may have been fooled by the britney-esque photos accompanying the CD).

Laundry service entered the billboard charts at position 3 and earned double platinum by christmas, and from there the conquest of the non-Latin world proceeded at a rate of one country per week. I happened to be in Germany on Valentine's day, when the single Whenever, wherever spent its third week at the top of the charts and the teenage magazines had Shakira covers, posters, interviews, the full monty. Same situation in the Netherlands, and presumably in the other countries that appear by and by in the list of affiliate websites on

Back home, the pop-oriented radio stations had taken to playing Whenever, wherever around the clock, full six weeks before it went on sale. I must have heard it a thousand times by now, but it still brings a smile to my face, and I still turn the radio up for it. When it hit the shops on February 25, it took the best-selling single of all times (no further comment!) to keep it away from the number one spot. As I write these lines, the album has turned up at HMV, Tesco's, and everywhere else. Shakira graces the cover of FHM, and hacks around the country are digging up all the silly details that I and presumably everybody with contacts to Latin American culture have known for years, from the meaning of her arabic name through to the article that Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote about her.

And it still feels so weird. As if a member of my family had suddenly been made prime minister. Not that I am surprised by the success which I think she has deserved more than anybody else out there. But what puzzles me is this: In a globalized world, where no-one stops you from reading South American newspapers on the web each morning, or from ordering whatever is available in the US via, why do people still wait until they get their books and music spoon-fed by the marketing machinery in their own country? We have the chance to choose what we like from around the world, why on Earth is nobody using it? I at least, having been robbed of my favourite insider tip, will have to do some surfing to find a new artist that nobody around here knows about.