It's been two years since the death of singer Lhasa de Sela, on New Year's Day 2010. For four days after she died, snow fell in Montreal. It was as if the sky was grieving.
This year there may still be snow. The city has a long memory. But Lhasa’s friends have also organized another memorial, a warmer one, in a room that will fill with music.
La Route chante, at the Rialto Theatre, will include renditions of Lhasa’s songs by artists such as Patrick Watson, Esmerine, The Barr Brothers, Katie Moore, Jérôme Minière and many of Lhasa’s former bandmates. It’s an anniversary, Watson says, and a homage, but there is a much more modest purpose too. "I guess," he murmurs, "it’s a way to get to hang out with her."
Lhasa was born in Big Indian, New York, in 1972. She grew up in a converted school bus, crisscrossing the U.S. and Mexico with her family. After spending her teens in San Francisco, she moved to Montreal in 1991; in this new home, Lhasa became a songwriter. In the three albums that followed, Lhasa sang in English, French and Spanish. There was one Juno Award, one Prix Félix, one platinum record. She was only 37 when she died.
Lhasa lived an extraordinary life, but its bare facts do not communicate the depth of her music, the supple splendour of her performances. On record, her songs are deliberate, mesmerizing, faintly mischievous; live, she was at once a diva and a kindred spirit, giving and giving.
"On stage she was a fantastic, unbelievably powerful singer," recalls her friend, the harpist Sarah Pagé. "She was a wise old soul. But I always think of Lhasa as the funniest person that I ever met. She had the most incredible laugh – in most of my memories with her, we were giggling."
This is the memory, "light and sweet," that Lhasa’s friends hope to summon on January 6. "I want it to be about truly celebrating her," Pagé says. "For it to be really, really joyful." By bringing together so many of Lhasa’s collaborators, the participants hope to trace out her full silhouette. "She shared a different piece of [herself] with each of us," Watson says. "When you bring all these different types of friends into one room, you get to put these pieces together."
For La Route chante, these "different types of friends" include everyone from Parisian singer Arthur H to Mile End rockers Plants & Animals, and a wide swath of the city’s best folk musicians. Pagé and Watson both insist that it is not a matter of protecting Lhasa’s legacy, of safeguarding her songs. "She can take care of herself, even from the other side," Watson says. "This is about the memory of a friend. Playing her tunes."
"So much of Lhasa is in her music," Pagé adds. "Being up on stage with all the musicians that she played with, it can kind of bring a person back. Or bring their spirit back."
And then there is also the simplest thing, at the heart of any mourning: "We miss her," Pagé says. "It feels like just yesterday we were sitting in her living room having tea. I still feel like I’m a little kid scratching her head and going, ‘What do you mean [she's gone]?’ I just don’t understand. I don’t know that I ever will. I don’t think humans are very good at understanding the temporariness of people who we love."
"Every once in a while it’s okay." Watson suddenly sounds sad. "And then every once in a while, something hits you. You’d just like to visit them and say ‘Hi.’ I’d love to say ‘Hi,’ you know?"
This week, with memory, melody and dreams of snow, many of those who loved Lhasa will try to say ‘Hi.’ There will be songs, silences, rounds of applause. There will be a little of that "special touch," as Watson puts it -Lhasa’s "from-beyond feeling."
"And I hope very dearly," Pagé says, "that we’ll all get a really good giggle in."
La Route chante: A Community Show for Lhasa
At Théâtre Rialto
January 6 (sold out) and 7