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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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."

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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.

"Tuo Luo Ni," among the best compelling tracks off "Alive," floats in on a series of cascading vocal harmonies. As the song passes the minute mark, a groundswell of synthesizers build. By three minutes in, the simple progression has given way to a squall of point and counterpoint – a high-pitched wail smashed into the steady click of a dance-floor backbeat.

"I think of electronic music and Western music as more straightforward," Dingding says. "I think of it as very male, very aggressive. Traditional Chinese music is very female – like the light, or like the moon. It's more abstract. So I hope to mix them together. To balance them."

On "Oldster by Xilin River," balance is achieved, in part, through the familiar language of pop. The central melody is a hymn of sorts – an ode to Mongolian culture, which Dingding says she adores. But the hook is oversized, chromatic, and fat enough to hang your hat on.

"I want it to lighten people's imagination, to provide a road" – Dingding says, pausing to choose the right word – "or a road map into ancient Chinese culture, and to what China looks like right now. I want people to have a friendship through my music."

Still, obstacles remain. This spring, the organizers of the legendary Glastonbury Festival extended a coveted invitation to Dingding, and then quickly rescinded it, citing concerns over a media firestorm. And Dingding has been regularly greeted by protests – staged by supporters and detractors – on recent visits to Europe.

The sticking point is Dingding's position on Tibet, which has been under Chinese control since 1951. Many activists believe that the region – the spiritual home to Tibetan Buddhism and the ancient seat of the Dalai Lama – should be granted autonomy. Dingding, however, toes the Party line: Historically, she says, Tibet has always been part of China.

Dingding's "apparent exploration of spiritual themes, cultures, and religions is interesting, though a bit of a blank slate," says Scott Stevens, the host of a world music radio program called "Spin the Globe" and a blogger at soundroots.org. "I'm very curious to see how music fans and radio listeners react to her.... Can she champion cultural minorities without running afoul of the nation's rulers? Can she promote China without butting heads with foreign groups who think she should speak out on human rights problems in China and Tibet?"

For the time being, at least, Dingding seems to be most comfortable tackling the big political issues only elliptically, if at all. She has a written a song about Tibet, called "Holy Incense," and says she has an abiding love of the culture, which she calls "special." Asked to address the Tibetan debate more directly, she smiles, and says, "There will always be a spotlight on that part of the world."

As for Western coverage of Chinese issues, she flashes another billion-watt smile, and demurs. "Art is art," she says. "It is very simple. It is about like and dislike. I think if people give my music a chance, they will like it.

"I remember the first time I listened to a traditional Mongolian song, played with a horsehair fiddle. I was with my grandmother," Dingding says. "This is how I want people to hear my music – as a introduction, a door." And then, brushing aside the help of the translator, she adds: "Music is freedom. It is emotion."

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