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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Her music was universal

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Like too many great artists, Lhasa was taken before her time. The Montreal singer, whose full name was Lhasa de Sela, died on New Year’s Day at the age of thirty-seven. In a country whose most commercially successful musical exports are buffed and glossed, Lhasa built a career with her own voice and songs, and won over audiences with her boundless reach.

Born in the Catskill mountains of New York, Lhasa moved frequently with her American mother and Mexican father. As a teenager, inspired by Billie Holiday, she sang at open mike nights in San Francisco coffee houses. Her debut, La Llorona, released in 1997 just six years after she moved to Montreal, showcased the voice that would make her so beloved: a slow, hauntingly dark Spanish alto, which could go from whisper to wail in just a few bars.

Music in an unfamiliar language is too often relegated to a niche genre – the marketers like to call it “world music,” and others often consigned her to the cabaret or folk bins. But Lhasa spoke to all listeners, even those who did not understand the literal words of the songs; like Holiday and Tom Waits, two performers to whom she was often compared, she could reach an audience through cadence and rhythm alone, as any listener of the songs “De cara a la pared” and “Con toda Palabra” can attest. She mesmerized live audiences with her sensuality and her between-song stories.

Lhasa’s critical acclaim always exceeded her commercial success. Her three albums sold around a million copies, at least half outside of Canada, in her lifetime; enough for a livelihood, but never enough for a life of leisure. Work and family, indeed, diverted her from a solo music career for a time and took her to a circus in France, where she performed with three of her sisters.

It would be a stretch to say that Lhasa’s singular talent could have only come to prominence in Canada. But it was nurtured here; Montreal offered collaborators such as members of the bands Patrick Watson and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and an audience receptive to songs in a number of languages, including French and English. This was not done for market share, but because they were true to Lhasa’s milieu. “I live in three languages,” she once said. In her death, a new audience may well discover in her music a kind of universal language.

CTVglobemedia Publishing, Inc

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