Soon this space will be too small
That’s the title of one of Lhasa’s songs, one that I remember well from her 2004 concert tour. When I heard her sing that song up on stage only a few feet away, I thought for the the first time, “wow, here is somebody who really isn’t afraid of death.” At the time I imagined Lhasa growing into a wise and very old woman – her incredibly sensual and passionate presence was her way of fighting off melancholy with every word she sang into the mike. I never thought she would leave so soon.
A few days before one of her concerts in February 2004, I was given her personal phone number to call for an interview. It was during the two-year period when I was experimenting with freelance journalism, while translating and gingerly working my way back into vet medicine after a soul-destroying year of farm practice. Writing for the local English daily, the Sherbrooke Record, I was regularly asked to do pieces on arts and culture. I didn’t feel like the right person to write about those subjects, and would’ve preferred to stick with the wildlife/pets/environment and health beat I’d tried to carve out for myself, but after several months of talking to artists and performers, I started to enjoy the interviews that gave me a new view of life. When my editor asked me if I’d be interested in doing a piece on Lhasa de Sela to stimulate interest for her concert, I was fairly intimidated, as unlike most of the artists I’d interviewed, she was suddenly getting a good amount of publicity. As part of the bargain, I was offered two tickets to the concert (which were actually worth more than what my piece would pay, in dollar terms).
I called her and we talked for what seemed like a very long time. I could hear her washing her dishes, and that helped me imagine I was chatting with a friend. We talked about her musical influences, her background, her languages, and her views on life. I discovered a person whose philosophical outlook was remarkably similar to mine, even though our backgrounds and personal essence could not have been more different for two people who had grown up in the same generation and part of the world. She sounded ageless,with a lifetime of thought and experience behind her as well as the simplicity of a highly intelligent and unspoiled child.
It took me a few days to dig up the article I wrote on that interview – it was missing from the pile of all the others I’d written and was never available online, so I had to go to the paper’s offices and ask for a copy. I’ve decided to put it down here so that I won’t have to go looking for it again.
Juno and Felix award-winning artist Lhasa de Sela has a singular voice that perfectly matches the peripatetic life she’s led since birth: unforgettable and intoxicating.
In 1998, Lhasa won the Juno for Best Global Artist with her first album, La Llorona, produced in Montreal with the help of Yves Desrosiers, and sung entirely in Spanish.
Her new album, The Living Road, was released in late 2003 and contains original songs in Spanish, French and English. While writing them, Lhasa spent four years in France – in between stints as a travelling circus performer – reflecting on her kaleidoscope life.
Lhasa’s mother tongue is English: born of an American mother and a Mexican father who taught and wrote in Spanish, her very first stop was a tiny village in the Catskill Mountains.
She didn’t stay there for long – her parents were also modern-day gypsies, preferring to follow the road from upstate New York to Guadalajara, in spite of the fact they would eventually have 10 children. There was no television, no formal school, unrelenting travel in the family bus. In the evening, the children would prepare shows for the family’s entertainment.
Today, nine of those 10 children are performers, artists to the core: musicians, tightrope walkers, clowns, acrobats and jewelry designers.
Lhasa had a brief experience as a regular schoolgirl in the mid-1980s in San Francisco. There, for the first time in her life, she didn’t feel like she fit in, and there was also where she began to find her voice, through the inspiration of 1940s blues singer Billie Holliday, and the memory of the soundtracks she had listened to for years – a medley of American, Mexican, Middle Eastern, European and Asian music provided by her parents.
Fast forward six years or so and she finds herself in Montreal. She was accompanying her circus performer sisters to the national circus school and the Cirque du Soleil.
“I just ended up living in the francophone part of town – one thing led to another, I made friends and among them was Yves Desrosiers.”
For close to five years, they made the rounds of downtown bars and created enough original material for La Llorona. That album sold nearly a half a million copies in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, where she has a cult following, especially in France and Germany.
Her present tour includes concert dates that are already sold out in those countries.
The languages she uses represent “different parts of my life. It’s so natural for me to sing in three languages. Changing from one to the next isn’t meant to be shocking or disturbing – some people are surprised the first time they listen, but then they accept it.”
With their ear for the natural rhythms of language and their abilities in mimicry, many singers are able to perform in more than one language, but Lhasa is one of the few who has written all of her songs as well.
“That was what gave me the courage to do this. It holds together, it’s one person – myself – who is being truthful about who I am: not Mexican, not American, not Quebecoise, but a whole.”
Human identity is at the heart of The Living Road and Lhasa, in her early 30s, is at a point in her life where she’s acquired not only the maturity to explore her own past, but has also had the time to develop friendships. Through her friends, she’s realised that many people are in a situation where their identity has little to do with ethnic or linguistic origins. “My friends in Montreal are from Lebanon, Russia, Ukraine, France, all over the world…everybody’s a mix – that’s the human story; and if someone’s not a mix, then that’s a story too – like what is it from their past, from their parents’ or grandparents’ lives that made them come from one place instead of several places?”
Lhasa’s deep, rich voice comes even more alive when she speaks about her musical influences.
“There were a lot of voices. A lot of ways of singing that influenced me. My first love was Victor Jaras, a Chilean singer. And Billie Holliday, she was amazing. One of her songs was called “Strange Fruit” and she sang it so intensely. It’s about the lynching of black folks in the South – the black folds hanging from the trees were the strange fruit…she was so courageous to sing about that in her time, and it was what pushed me to become a singer.”
She also cites Chavela Vargas, a Mexican singer, as well as Fairouz, from Lebanon (“a sweet, beautiful, deep voice that makes you want to cry”), as current favourites.
Artistically, and by extension, politically, Lhasa makes a stand for diversity.
“What really bothers me in the world is the say that people are treated like they’re numbers, consumers, and their only usefulness in life is to buy things, to make the economy run…they’re “consumers” of health care, or this and that, the surveys talk abou the average person…but there is no average person. Life is an incredible voyage for each individual on the planet. Doing what I do is all about honouring my voyage – I will not be a number.”
“The world doesn’t adjust itself to the soul: the beauty, the magic of the soul is what I want to bring out. My job is to do it my way.”
This is the third time Lhasa will visit Sherbrooke, the third stop on her new tour. In the next few months, she will be performing in Toronto and various venues in Europe.
Lhasa will be performing at the Granada Theatre in Sherbrooke on Saturday, February 21. Tickets are still available by calling the theatre at 819-565-5656.
Lhasa, I was so sad to learn you left us on January 1. You once wrote a song about the end of the world or the coming of a new year. And you sang about how soon this space would be too small, and how you would go outside, strong as a ship and wise as a whale. I am grateful you shared these songs with us, that you shared the beauty of your soul.