With a visual and musical style that mixes ancient and modern – Steppes chic meets urban cool – Mongolian born Sa Dingding has become one of China’s best-known artists. Now, she is setting her sights on the West, she tells Clifford Coonan
CHINESE music has long struggled to win listeners outside of Greater China, but Sa Dingding, who has been variously called the Chinese Kate Bush or the Mongolian Björk, is determined to change that. We meet in her studio in Beijing. She is wearing large pompom earrings and is incredibly self-assured, carefully made-up atop her exquisite ethnic flowing dresses, a stunning combination of Steppes chic and urban cool, with a strong New Age element that should go down well with the Buddha Lounge chillout fans.
Her voice is what sets her apart from the rest of the new-age genre. It is truly remarkable – otherworldly but groovy – and she is being widely touted as the talent that will bridge that yawning cultural chasm between “East” and “West”.
“My reputation built up because of the music,” she says. “Westerners are interested in Chinese culture, and they can learn more about this through my music. My music is quite different, expressing both very modern and ancient Oriental culture. The combination of these two aspects is why I think it is interesting to contemporary audiences.”
Raised a nomad with sheep and cows in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, Sa was signed by a scout to Universal, and Alive (or The Life of 10,000 Things, as it is known in China) has sold two million legitimate copies here. Who knows how many pirated copies are in circulation?
Since winning a BBC3 World Music Award in the Asia/Pacific category in April, she has been touring tirelessly to promote her blend of Western electronica, Chinese singing and Buddhist chants. Even the lyrics are unlike anyone else’s, sung not just in her own invented language but also in Chinese, Sanskrit and Tibetan.
She has her sights set firmly on the West now. She will headline at the Festival of World Cultures in Dún Laoghaire on August 24th, and is enthusiastic about the music of Ireland, citing U2 and the Cranberries as among her idols.
“I’m particularly pleased to perform in Ireland,” she says. “Performance is a very important part of my musical world, and it’s a shame if you only listen to the CD without seeing the performance,” she says.
“I don’t think there is that much difference between people in the United States, or Japan or Ireland or elsewhere. They are just different groups of people. I think peoples’ emotion and sentiment is the same. I hope more people can hear my music, no matter they are Americans or Irish, or people from other countries. I very much look forward to communicating with them.”
“I listen to a lot of Western musicians because they are not afraid to show their individuality. They express themselves openly and publicly, particularly contemporary Western music. But I also like Asian music for its subtlety.”
Sa is no mainstream artist – her music bears little resemblance to the bubblegum popcurrently so popular in China – but she has a healthy fan base and inspires intense devotion in her fans, who write novels and make sculptures in her honour.
Sa has a kind of muse role in China, where there is a growing interest in the spiritual among those tired of the relentless “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”. Her music inspired the writer Cai Jun to pen a novel, Tian Ji, which sold in its millions. “I am the heroine,” Sa explains. “The novel uses my real name and some of my true stories.”
She also collaborated with the French producer Deep Forest to produce a song in English and in a self-created language to express her grief and encouragement to the victims of last May’s Sichuan earthquake.
“I realised I wanted to be a singer when I was very small. From the age of three until the age of six, I grew up in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. During these days in the grasslands, I believed music should be very free. And everyone can become an artist,” she says. In keeping with these somewhat esoteric sentiments, Sa studied music and philosophy and plays the zither and the horse-head fiddle, and always travels with her Buddhist thangka (a kind of painted or embroidered Buddhist banner).
She is currently preparing her new album which she hopes will be released at the end of the year. “The Chinese music market needs to be guided by a large number of musicians and needs to be more diverse. Young musicians face the task of convincing fans to like more than just mainstream music, showing that other forms of Chinese music have great power,” she says.
As well as doing publicity in Europe and the US, she is planning a major showcase in Beijing – where she now lives with her Mongolian doctor mother and Han Chinese government official father – during the Olympics.
“I am very interested in both modern and ancient music. Initially, the two did not intersect but developed separately, until one day I found that the two could quite naturally combine. Only this combination can represent the whole me,” she said.
There was controversy earlier this year when she said she completely supported Beijing’s policy on Tibet following the brutal crackdown on anti-Chinese protests in the Himalayan enclave, espousing the widely held belief in China that Tibet was, is and always will be Chinese. Richard Gere is unlikely to be buying any of her records.
Despite her pro-Beijing line on Tibet, she remains a fan of Icelandic warbler Björk, who angered the Chinese government by singing pro-Tibetan independence lyrics during a show in Shanghai shortly before the riots in Lhasa.
“I like Björk’s music very much. I think that when a new concept emerges, people will make comparisons with something already out there, and I’m okay with that.
“The most important thing is that, as time passes, people see Sa Dingding’s performances, then they can understand Sa Dingding’s music better. This process takes time.”