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Lhasa: a unique voice

by Alison Hird

Article published on the 2010-01-08 Latest update 2010-01-08 18:08 TU

Lhasa de Sela.Photo: AP

Lhasa de Sela.
Photo: AP

The Mexican-American singer Lhasa de Sela died on 1 January 2010, aged just 37. In tribute to her remarkable voice and force we rebroadcast a Worldtracks from 2003 which followed the release of her second album The Living Road.

World Tracks: A tribute to Lhasa de Sela

08/01/2010 by Alison Hird

It’s hard to believe, but Lhasa couldn’t read or write music. “My language is visual,” she told Worldtracks in 2003. She clearly knew how to communicate to her musicians since while she made just three albums in just over ten years, and they’re all gems.

La Llorona (1996) was sung entirely in Spanish and went on to sell over 500,000 copies; the more orchestrated The Living Road (2003) is in English, Spanish and French, and the pared down, but perhaps most vocally accomplished Lhasa (2009) is entirely in English.

So she was already a bit unconventional in a music business where the pressure is on to keep producing, in order to keep yourself in the limelight.

“I’m slow,” she told cultural magazine Telerama in April 2009 on releasing Lhasa after a 6-year silence.

“I need time. I put a lot of myself into each album and every song has a sense to it. I work hard on the songs, with the idea they’ll live on.”

There’s no doubt they will.

Her voice had enormous range: showing by turns the crystalline precision of Joan Baez on Is anything wrong, more sultry and deep in the wonderful Rising. Already suffering from cancer, she gave a deeply moving performance of the song in our RFI studios in May 2009. 

Lhasa performs Rising live at RFI


With Love came here she proved she could do good justice to blues.

On Small Song she brought in keys and handslapping, while the bamboo percussion gave the song an unmistakeable Tom Waits feel. As she told Worldtracks, “Tom Waits has had a huge influence on me. He’s imaginary, theatrical.”

And yet Lhasa is not “like” anyone. She really managed to find her own unique voice and working methods.

In this digital age, she preferred to record analogue, live in studio with her musicians. It was more adapted to her deeply intuitive way of working.

For someone who’d spent their childhood travelling in a bus with her nine brothers and sisters, Lhasa’s world was deeply connected to the elements. The earth, sky and sea feature strongly in her songs - an aspect that’s brought out well in the video to Con Toda Palabra made by Ralph Dfouni and Brigitte Henry.

Lhasa performs Fool's Garden live at RFI


Did she anticipate death? Certainly one or two songs from her last album would suggest she’d be living with the idea for a while. In I’m going in Lhasa knew she had cancer:

“I need straw for the straw fire/I need hard earth for the plough/Don’t ask me to reconsider/I am ready to go now.”

But even in the earlier Living Road album, death was no stranger. Like in the sombre Soon this space will be too small:

“And I’ll die three times/and be born again/in a little box/with a golden key/and a flying fish/will set me free

“All my veins and bones/will be burned to dust/you can throw me into/a black iron pot/and my dust will tell/what my flesh would not.”

Lhasa leaves us musically bereft but inspired. A recent concert she gave at the Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris in May shows her remarkable stage presence and courage right up to the end. A truly great voice.

Lhasa De Sela, born 27 September 1972 (Big Indian, New York), died 1 January 2010 (Montreal).

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