The persistent rumours started circulating early Sunday, Jan. 3 and by that evening they had sadly been confirmed. Mexican-American singer Lhasa de Sela, who had long found a home in Montreal, had passed away after a long battle with breast cancer. She was only 37.
After posting the news on my Facebook profile, I received comments ranging from “how terribly sad and what an incredible loss” to “who?” Despite her myriad true blue fans here at home and around the world, mesmerized by her haunting, otherworldly voice and shy smile, Lhasa de Sela had never quite managed to catapult to stardom. She preferred being on the fringes, never quite belonging; a woman of the world who felt at home singing in Plateau bars in Spanish.
Born in New York of a Mexican father and an American mother, Lhasa spent her childhood living in the U.S. and Mexico in a converted school bus with her parents and three sisters and being home-schooled. Born into a gypsy-like existence, she roamed the States until finally settling in Montreal at the age of nineteen. The years spent performing in bars would eventually become the inspiration for her first album, La Llorona, an album entirely in Spanish, which mixed traditional South American songs with original songs, but was also influenced by Eastern European gypsy music. Yet, even Lhasa would readily admit to being all and none of that during interviews.
Her second album, The Living Road, included songs in English, French and Spanish. She would go on to receive the BBC World Music Award for Best Artist of the Americas in 2005. She released her third and final album, Lhasa in 2009.
Soft-spoken and shy on stage, Lhasa had a way of mesmerizing you while on stage. It was clear as day that she was born to sing. She would often break into a wide smile or an infectious laugh while performing and her audience swooned with delight. Lhasa loved Montreal and Montreal loved her back.
I was fortunate enough to see her perform on numerous occasions and each time I found her to be the perfect representation of what this city –at its best- can be. A love for life, an open spirit, a generous heart, a spirituality that encompasses all races, cultures, religions, and ways of life.
One of her most memorable sold-out performances took place at La Sala Rossa, an indie joint in Montreal’s Mile End, a neighbourhood of Italian, Spanish and Jewish immigrants. Lhasa switched seamlessly from Spanish to English to French that night and the crowd responded with enthusiasm. When she pulled up on stage a still-unknown Patrick Watson to sing a haunting cover of Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars” with her, the entire room was riveted. It was pure magic.
Lhasa’s music spoke to the rootless who seek roots, the gypsies who seek a home, and the ones who can’t –or won’t— fit in. As a result, this beautiful bohemian spoke to us all. R.I.P.Lhasa de Sela. Gone too soon, indeed.