World music artist shows new side on small screen
Her slim figure is wrapped in a long leather cape dress. Her long straight hair looks particularly black under a shiny sliver headpiece, which has long pheasant feathers.
It is 8 pm on a cold evening in a five-star hotel in Sanlitun, a popular commercial area in the capital’s downtown area.
Chinese singer Sa Dingding has done a news conference in the afternoon and has been doing interviews for four hours.
She is there to renew her contract with the Universal Music Group after a 10-year collaboration as well as to announce her new album, which will be released early next year.
“I want every one of my songs to be like a drama. Each song is a story, and I am not just singing but also portraying roles,” says Sa, who performs a song Wu Kong at the news conference. It was written and first performed by Dai Quan in the second season of the TV show Song of China in 2015 and broadcast by China Central Television.
The song, which takes its name from Sun Wukong — also known as the Monkey King — the main character in the 16th-century Chinese classical novel Journey to the West by Ming Dynasty (13681644) writer Wu Cheng’en, is a soulful blend of pop music and Peking Opera, and a hit in China in 2015.
The 32-year-old — who’s better known as a world music artist and won a BBC World Music Award in 2008 for her album Alive — also performed the song on the TV show Masked King broadcast by Jiangsu Satellite TV Station in October.
For singers like Sa, doing TV shows is typically not seen as a great career move as they usually do not have a large fan base like typical pop singers.
But justifying her decision, Sa says: “I agreed to do the TV show ( Masked King) only because it was a platform for me to showcase my voice in a different way.
“I know that, from my music style, I cater to a minority. And my voice is often overshadowed because my songs often comprise heavy electronic sounds and mysterious language. But, when I sang pop and rock songs on TV, the audience gained a different perspective of me.”
After her TV performance, she received lots of messages via her Sina Weibo account, which has nearly 2 million followers. While some said that they were surprised by her singing, others started to pay attention to her previous albums.
Early this year, she also took part in another TV show, the second season of Ding Ge Long Dong Qiang, a reality show broadcast by CCTV to promote traditional Chinese music by giving it a contemporary touch.
“The show is more of a continuation of what I have been doing. It introduces traditional Chinese musicians, most of whom are from ethnic groups,” says Sa.
“I enjoy working with these musicians, whose music is primitive and charming.”
Sa was born into a family with ethnic Han and Mongolian influences.
Her father is from Shandong province and her mother from the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.
Sa, whose real name is Zhou Peng, developed an early interest in the ethnic culture and music of the region, where she lived as a child.
For the first six years of her life, Sa spent the summer traveling across the pasturelands of Inner Mongolia with her grandmother.
Later, she moved to eastern and then central China with her parents, before settling in Beijing, where she studied music at the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Art.
Sa participated in the Ninth CCTV Youth Singers Competition in 2000, where she stood second.
Earlier, at 18, she had released two electronic music albums before she changed her name from Zhou Peng to Sa Dingding.
Meanwhile, Sa has spent years traveling to gain musical inspiration from ethnic regions.
Her album, Alive, released in 2007, was her big break that introduced her to Western audiences.
In 2008, she performed at the Royal Albert Hall and later launched a European tour.
Speaking about how Alive — in which she sings in Mandarin, Sanskrit, Tibetan and a self-created language — came about, Sa says: “When I look back, I can still recall when I proposed the idea to record companies, they told me that it was hard to categorize my music and that it (the album) would be very hard to sell.
“But now, more people listen to world music and they are open to a variety of genres. This gives me confidence to keep trying out my musical ideas.”
Her new album will contain her latest explorations inspired by ethnic groups in Yunnan province, which she visited early this year.
Caralinda Booth, the A&R consultant at Universal Music China, who has been working with Sa since the singer joined the record company in 2006, says: “I am impressed by her voice and her music. I am proud of her, and I am looking forward to working with her for the next 10 years.”
Sa Dingding performs
Wukong, a song inspired by the tale of the Monkey King, in Beijing.