East­ern star

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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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.”

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