Lhasa de Sela remembered
Canada has lost a true musical luminary with the recent passing of Lhasa de Sela on New Year’s Day in Montreal.
Words fail me when I try to describe Lhasa’s artistry. How can one describe a voice that was by turns rich and delicate, ferocious and tender? A voice that seemed to be made up of equal parts Amalia Rodriguez, Nina Simone, Edith Piaf and Mercedes Sosa? A voice that was the embodiment of pure, unadulterated passion?
I heard about Lhasa before I actually heard her sing. Two listeners to my former CBC Radio show, Roots & Wings, phoned in to ask if I’d heard the incredible singer who’d recently been featured on Radio-Canada. Lhasa was in the process of releasing her self-produced Spanish-language debut album, La Llorona, which was released by Les Disques Audiogram. My interest was piqued: never before had listeners hungered to hear an unknown artist like this.
From the moment I heard her sing, I knew Lhasa was truly a gifted artist. Rarely in my radio career have I been so excited about introducing an artist to the public as I was in the fall of 1997. The response to La Llorona was exactly what I expected: immediate and overwhelming. Everyone wanted to know more about this “mystery singer”, and the more was so much more. Lhasa was a modern-day gypsy, born in New York state to an American artist mother and Mexican literature professor father. The family lived in a renovated school bus, travelling from town to town around the continent. Lhasa was homeschooled and chose to immerse herself in a world of music, listening to French ballads, Mexican cantina songs, American blues and Portuguese fado, all of which shaped her sound. She began her professional career as a singer at age 13.
Lhasa never expected La Llorona to be a sleeper hit that would catapult her to cult-status stardom on two continents, but audiences in North America and Europe immediately loved her haunting melodies, her startling lyrics, her heart-wrenching delivery and her sparse-yet-lush production (created with multi-instrumentalist Yves Desrosiers).
On top of it all, Lhasa was a captivating performer. Watching Lhasa perform was akin to watching an angel channel a demon: she was a petite woman with an enormous voice, a shy woman who allowed audiences to peek into the darkest recesses of her soul.
When her relentless touring schedule brought her to the edge of exhaustion, Lhasa literally ran away to join the circus in 1999: a one-ring horse-drawn cabaret run by her 3 sisters in France. She recorded her tri-lingual sophomore album, The Living Road in Marseille. She returned to Montreal to complete production prior to its release in 2003.
I interviewed Lhasa in 2003 following the release of The Living Road and asked if baring her soul through her music was difficult. She replied, “what’s really terrifying to me is NOT saying these things out loud.”
Lhasa recently completed a third eponymously-titled album of songs in English and was set to tour extensively when illness cut her plans short. Her latest album was long-listed for the Polaris Prize. She had previously won both a Felix and a Juno award for best world music album in 1997 and 1998 resepectively. She had also received a 2005 BBC World Music Award. The Living Road ranked third in the London Times top ten world music albums of the decade.
Lhasa de Sela succumbed to breast cancer on New Year’s day after a lengthy battle. She was 37.