Shakira tongue-trilling sound at Super Bowl? Zaghrouta, a traditional Middle Eastern expression of joy

Shakira performs during the halftime show at Super Bowl LIV in Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium.

Shakira’s high-pitched, tongue-flicking cry during the Super Bowl halftime show was a crowd pleaser, a scene stealer and, initially, a bit of a mystery.

On Twitter, there were references to tongue-wagging turkeys, toddlers and SpongeBob SquarePants.

But it wasn’t long before more knowledgeable voices weighed in. They said Shakira, who is of Lebanese and Colombian heritage, was introducing Westerners to the traditional Middle Eastern cry of joy called a zaghrouta. The ululation, made by women at weddings, graduations, births and other celebrations, was immediately recognizable to people of Middle Eastern and North African descent and to world travelers.

Some who recognized a zaghrouta in the middle of the Super Bowl seemed surprised. Rowaida Abdelaziz of the HuffPost tweeted, “Wait was that a ZAGHROUTA.” Others surveyed the unfolding social media pandemonium with a touch of irony.

For context, we turned to Nesreen Akhtarkhavari, an associate professor at DePaul University and director of Arabic studies.

“I found it impressive,” she said of Shakira’s performance, which she believes did include a zaghrouta: “She did not master it, but I think that’s what she was trying to do.”

An expression of joy, used generally by women, zagroutas are also seen in political contexts. Akhtarkhavari said it was used recently by female protesters in Sudan, and Algerians used it when they won an African sports competition. The zaghrouta is also associated with the Palestinian resistance, Akhtarkhavari said; a mother might, for instance, make the sound to celebrate a son killed in fighting.

There are alternative explanations for Shakira’s tongue-trilling sound, with some on Twitter comparing it to a tongue motion made in a traditional dance at the Carnaval de Barranquilla in Colombia. Others pointed out that the sound isn’t confined to the Arabic-speaking world.

Still, the moment seemed to have particular meaning for people of Middle Eastern descent.

Akhtarkhavari saw the tongue-trilling as part of a larger performance by Shakira, which included both Middle Eastern belly-dancing and Latin dance moves.

“She was trying to connect to her Arabic heritage, and she was also trying to connect to her Latin upbringing, in a time when we have all this contentiousness (around immigration and American identity),” Akhtarkhavari said. “She was trying to make a stand, and that was very interesting.”

Wednesday, February 19, 2020