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China's biggest pop star debuts her exotic talents in the West

Sa Dingding's music melds traditional harmonies with offbeat electronica to create a layered hypnotic sound.

By Matthew ShaerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 25, 2008

'Alive': Sa Dingding's latest album won a BBC music award. But in interviews she carefully sidesteps political questions.

courtesy of universal music productions


New York

It's probably best to start here, because here is where most newspaper and magazine profiles – both Chinese and Western – start: Yes, she's beautiful, sharply and distinctly so. Slighter than she looks in her music videos, where she often sweeps across the screen in splashes of bright color like a cloth-bound dervish, singing in four languages (one entirely made up), and mugging happily for the camera. But beautiful in a way that is both confident – the emphatic glance, the wry smile – and eminently reserved.

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She says: "I want to practice English," tucking herself neatly into a chair at her hotel on the edge of SoHo.

She says: "I think New York is very modern," through a translator, not necessarily responding to a question but just thinking aloud, stringing together a handful of associations. "I like the modern cities. The buildings are different; the people are different. The sky and the earth – that part is the same, because it depends on your heart."

It is Sa Dingding's first trip to the United States, but on the eve of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the trip already has the feeling of an ambassadorial tour. In China, Ms. Dingding is big. Pop star big. Rihanna big. In the US – traditionally a tough market for Chinese musicians to crack – she is unknown. (She played her first American show last week, at San Francisco's storied Cow Palace.)

This will likely change. Dingding's Western debut, "Alive," attracted a good deal of critical buzz, and in April she snagged a best album award at the annual BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music. Now she is aggressively pursuing fans across Europe and the US, buoyed by both a compelling backstory and the storm of Olympic coverage.

"It's good timing – people are naturally more curious about Chinese music," says Ian Ashbridge, head of the British label Wrasse Records, which is releasing "Alive" in Europe and the US. "It's quite an alien culture, it's quite secretive, and we think of the music as being very traditional. But what [Dingding] is doing is mixing the old and the new. She's bridging a gap."

Dingding was born to a Han Chinese father and a Mongolian mother, and raised in Inner Mongolian by her grandmother. She plays a score of ancient instruments, including the horsehair fiddle; she traffics in speak-sing mantras, delivered in Mandarin, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and an invented language she describes as most closely resembling the Mongolian she once spoke with her grandmother.

And yet "Alive" is a resolutely modern album, built on a foundation of offbeat electronica, and sturdy keyboard and guitar vamps. The mood is lush, like the soundscapes stitched by the British outfit Morcheeba; it can also be aggressively weird, in the mode of the Icelandic experimentalist Bjork.