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Artist Profiles: Lhasa

Lhasa

Her story began in Big Indian, a tiny village perched among the Catskill Mountains of New York although she didn’t stay there long. Lhasa’s (full name Lhasa de Sela) idealistic and unconventional parents rejected routine and stability preferring to follow life wherever it might lead them.

For seven years the family would crisscross the United States and Mexico in a converted school bus Lhasa’s first chapter in a long experience of the road. Her father was a writer and teacher who would work in construction or picking fruit when he had to; her mother was a photographer.

Traveling with them and her three sisters it was her early contacts with books fairy tales radio drama and passing landscapes that shaped her imagination. Even at the time she knew how lucky she was to be spending her childhood as she was although the freedom entailed uncertainty as well.

The soundtrack to those years was a medley of the American and Mexican classics loved by her father and the Latin Arab Eastern European and Asian music her mother would listen to.

San Francisco mid 198s. At 13 Lhasa took to the stage of a Greek cafe to sing Billie Holliday ballads and Mexican tunes a cappella. There she gradually discovered the power of her voice to convey thoughts and emotions she was only beginning to experience herself.

Six years later the road led north to Montreal. It was there that she met guitarist and producer Yves Desrosiers. For close to five years they performed together in downtown bars a collaboration that evolved into original material that eventually took form in La Llorona an album that centered on the persona of a tearful siren of Aztec mythology who would bewitch men with her heartrending melodies.

Infused with a certain nostalgia, the album exuded the fragrances of Mexico and the colors of the Romany full of sensuality and striking instrumentation. Released in February 1997 the Spanish-language album was immediately recognized for its sparkling originality. Hundreds of thousands worldwide were transported by the even throaty voice that delivered such mysterious poetry above the rich arrangements heady like incense.

The first influence was in Quebec where Lhasa began to fill halls and ultimately win the “Felix” for Artiste Quebecois – musique de monde in 1997. Then followed the rest of Canada where she went platinum selling 11 albums and winning a Juno for Best Global Artist in 1998. Then came the U.S. and Europe especially France where La Llorona went triple disc d’or, with albums flying off the shelves.

Lhasa and her band toured relentlessly for several years throughout Europe and North America where her concerts were as acclaimed as the album had been. The demand for live appearances steadily increased. On the eve of the 21st Century Lhasa decided to take a break from touring and consider what might be next.

Realizing that she needed to distance herself from her life as a singer she decided to travel to France to fulfill her childhood dream of performing with her three sisters all circus performers. They met up in Bourgogne and created a show together which premiered in the summer of 1999. The contrast between the life of a touring musician who sees the world fly by with never the time to savor the places and people along the way and the circus life traveling in the company of family and friends sharing trailers and assembling and dismantling the big top and bleachers provided a welcome opportunity for the singer to replenish her inner resources.

When the circus tour had ended Lhasa arrived at a new chapter in her life: Marseilles the ancient port city where half the titles for her new album would be born. In 2002, back in Montreal, where her career had begun she re-united with Francois Lalonde drummer percussionist and sound engineer onLa Llorona and Jean Massicotte pianist who had also contributed to the mixing of her first release. They were to co-produce her second album The Living Road.

Where La Llorona revolves around a mythical siren The Living Road centers on the metaphor of life as a road. A gathering of original titles sung in Spanish, English and French the album bridges physical distances as it links the musical traditions of the present and the past. “That’s what inspires each of the songs on the album,” said Lhasa. “The mysterious force that doesn’t let us box ourselves in that compels us to keep changing. The road is alive we can’t freeze or stop it. And we know we can’t.”

The self-titled and self-produced Lhasa reveled in her eclectic sum of influences was released in 2009.

After battling breast cancer Lhasa passed away on Monday January 1st of 2010 at her home in Montreal Canada. She was 37.

Discography

La Llorona (1997)
The Living Road (2003)
Lhasa (2009)

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Interview with Lhasa

Lhasa
Lhasa

World Music Central’s interview with the increasingly popular singer and world traveler Lhasa:

How did growing up in different places and countries affect your music?

It was growing up in different places and on the road, but also growing up without television and for many years without school, so we were pretty isolated from the culture at large both in Mexico and the States. And this was a choice that my parents made. They were interested in who their children were and at the same time forced us to deal with complex situations very early. They lived by their ideals as much as they could.

As adults my sisters and I all became traveling performers with very high standards as far as not bullshitting ourselves and other people and trying with all our might to do work that’s really alive, charismatic, brave, and beautiful.

When did you realize you wanted to become a singer?

I always, always sang constantly, from the time I was four. But I decided to be a singer when I was 12.

Why do you think an album in Spanish by an artist based in Canada became so popular in countries such as France?

France is incredibly supportive of the arts; the government, the record companies, the theatres, the media, the audience, the record stores are all so used to music that comes from all over the world. So when my album came along there was a place for it. It was easy for people who might be interested in it to find out about it and find it. So it was like having the wind in my sails, my music arrived in France and found its audience, which turned out to be bigger than anyone expected. In other places sometimes we’ve had to get out the oars and paddle. But that’s ok too.

Your previous album was only in Spanish. The new  album has songs in  French and English. What motivated you to sing in  other languages?

I live in three languages…In a way, the question I ask myself is, why was the first album in one language? And the answer is that singing in Spanish gave me courage, gave me guts, helped me to get off the ground. It helped me in a lot of ways; the language, the whole world of images and memories that I associated with Spanish, my childhood. Also, singing in French or English I would have immediately found myself in a “market”. Because I was singing in Spanish in Canada, I seemed to be coming out of nowhere, and I was allowed to find my own voice. Now I feel I’ve found my own voice, and I can sing in English and French too.

Many modern musicians are digging into their roots.  Are you planning  to work with Mexican or other Latin musicians in the future?

I don’t know yet what I’ll be doing for the next album. I do have the lifelong dream of singing with mariachis. But you know, my roots are very tangled! I have Lebanese, Panamanian, Polish, Russian, French, Scottish and Spanish blood. So I consider I have been digging into my roots already. Working with mariachis would be like choosing one root and unraveling it. But really I would do it because I love Mexican music so much and it would be like flying to be backed up by mariachis. Still I guess my priority is to make my own music, whatever that may be. There’ll be time to make cover albums when I’m 70!

What other artists do you listen to?

Right now I’m listening to Devendra Banhart who is a wonder of the world in my humble opinion. Also recently I discovered Cat Power, who is amazing. Camarón, the great flamenco singer; Oum Khoulsoum [Um Kulthum] the Egyptian virtuoso; Anouar Brahem, the Tunisian ud player who writes beautiful poetic simple and profound music…Nina Simone…Radiohead…Bob Dylan…Fairuz, the beautiful gentle and passionate Lebanese singer…Simón Díaz from Venezuela, who is another wonder of the world…

You’ve traveled and moved quite a bit. Where is your home now?

Montréal.

Buy The Living Road and her previous CD La Llorona

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