I remember buying my first Lhasa de Sela CD at Austin, Texas' famed Waterloo records in the late 1990s. Composed in Spanish, La Llorona (1997) contained 11 songs of soul bliss with a range of octaves and notes with which Lhasa, as she was known, caressed the words of the stories the songs told with the sonic beauty of orchestrated grace. Her voice was like no other, haunting and velvety, transforming the lyrics of these classic and oft-covered Spanish songs into her own search for meaning, her own understanding of life and death. These questions of what it means to live and love, to struggle and dream, engrain all of Lhasa's compositions.
Like many music aficionados around the Américas and the world, I was mesmerized and listened with anticipation to everything Lhasa put out—The Living Road (2003), and Lhasa (2009), her only album recorded entirely in English and released six months before she passed from cancer. Lhasa transformed genres of music including Mexican boleros and rancheras, gypsy music, jazz, and fado. So, when the University of Texas published Why Lhasa de Sela Matters by Fred Goodman in 2019, I bought it immediately and consumed it with fascination and sadness in two nights.
A songwriter, musical producer, film director, and painter who did the artwork for all her album covers, Lhasa de Sela imagined in multiple languages, searching for ideas and ways of meaning-making that crossed borders. Lhasa was born in an abandoned ski resort in upstate New York to a Mexican father, Alejandro Sela, a Ph.D. in literature, and an American mother, photographer Alexandra Karam. She spent her life on the road between Mexico, the US, Canada, and France.
Why Lhasa de Sela Matters, her first biography, is an intimate portrait of the creativity that resulted from the collision of a hopeful and hopeless romantic. Goodman narrates the challenges and possibilities of living a nomadic life, and how those challenges and possibilities impacted Lhasa as an artist, a sister, a daughter, a partner, and a loving human being. Why Lhasa de Sela Matters is part of the UT Press series Music Matters, which includes titles about Karen Carpenter, The Ramones, Solange, and Patty Labelle. If you have never heard of Lhasa de Sela, check out the only published live recording, Lhasa Live in Reykjavik, released posthumously in 2017.