Grammy Award-winning singer Shakira had just launched into her hit song "Hips Don't Lie" when she abruptly leaned down toward one of the cameras at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., stuck out her tongue and let out a high-pitched, warbling cry.
The Internet instantly exploded with reactions to the unexpected ululation and its accompanying tongue action. Some viewers were perplexed. Others ridiculed the 43-year-old singer, creating countless memes that likened her to a gleeful turkey, a petulant toddler and characters from Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob SquarePants" cartoon, among a host of other unflattering comparisons.
It didn't take long, however, for many to point out that the mocking images and commentary were in poor taste.
Like much of Shakira's widely heralded performance, which was full of nods to her Colombian and Lebanese heritage, the seemingly random trill actually carried deep cultural significance. To those familiar with Middle Eastern culture, the sound was akin to a traditional Arabic expression of joy and celebration called a zaghrouta. It was also interpreted as a reference to the world-famous Carnaval de Barranquilla, which is held in Shakira's hometown in Colombia.
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Hatem Bazian, a senior lecturer in Near Eastern and ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley, told The Washington Post that he immediately recognized the unusual noise as a zaghrouta.
The expression has a "long-standing cultural presence" in countries such as Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, Bazian said. It is most commonly used by women at weddings in call-and-response form, but it has variations that make appearances at graduations and birthdays.
"It definitely has a long history without putting a particular date to it," he said. "So much so that no wedding or celebration would be complete without having a zaghrouta expression taking place."
Shakira's usage can be most closely compared to an American cowboy shouting "yee-haw!" in celebration, Bazian said.
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Various interpretations aside, Bazian praised Shakira's decision to feature the expression so prominently in her performance, calling it "a very significant nod to cultural diversity."
"I'm hoping that these conversations will result in a better opportunity to understand and relate to the diversities of cultures that have made America what it is and continue to shape the diversity that we have in our society," he said.
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