Kevin Winter, Getty Images T.I. and Lil Wayne are teaming up once again, only this…
- Posted on Jul 22nd 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
So who does she want to single out as a current influence?
"Jay-Z -- I like him very much," she says. "Jay-Z has a very good sense of rhythm."
Any Chinese artists?
"Dou Wei," she says, noting a prominent Beijing pop and rock artist of recent years, whose Web site calls him "moody and creative," lists his roles in various Chinese groups of recent years and makes references to such Western acts as the Cure, Bauhaus and dark-toned English "post-rock" act Bark Psychosis. "He mixes his music -- some rap, a little electronic and plays the flute."
Well, it was a silly question to ask her in the first place. Imagine being asked by someone virtually unfamiliar with American or European music to do something similar. Arguably, Chinese music is even more hard to grab a handle on, with its thousands of years of development among 55 recognized ethnic groups. "Chinese music is divided into different styles and kinds of music, so it depends on what kind of music interests you," she says.
It's not that she doesn't know about a wide variety of Chinese music. She has a formal music education, having studied the zheng (a 25-string zither that can be heard on the album). But she is also a cosmopolitan 25-year-old who doesn't really think of her music as Chinese music, per se. You don't need to know anything about Chinese music to appreciate it. It's simply Sa Dingding music.
"I'm trying to enlighten your imagination," she says, with some assistance from manager and translator Sunny Wu. "My music is based on my imagination. So the only thing you need to know when listening to my music is relax and come back to your very deepest heart and try to feel through it."
One thing you most likely won't know is the meaning of the words she sings, as there are no translations included with the CD. Even if you do understand Mandarin, Tibetan and Sanskrit -- the languages that make up much of the set --- that will only get you so far. Several songs are in a language of her own devising; words with specific meanings only to her, a la Icelandic band Sigur Rós' own Hopelandish lyrics. And like that band, she's not divulging anything.
"Only two of the songs are in Mandarin," she notes, citing Chinese classical music and Western artists such as electronica innovators the Chemical Brothers, folk-electronics hybridists Deep Forest and top deejay/producer Paul Oakenfold, among other influences. "So even in China most of the people don't understand the languages. This is one of my purposes of doing this album. I chose to use so many different languages because I just wanted to tell people we all share the same emotional feelings, wherever you live. Music has this original function, to carry emotions and touch directly to the heart without the limitation of lyrics. I want people to feel the music rather than to hold on to the lyrics themselves."
To this end, she cites both the oldest and newest words on the album. The album's first two songs, 'Mama Tian Na' and 'Alive,' are both drawn from ancient Buddhist mantras. "People studying Buddhist culture understand the meaning, but they had original function in the meaning," she says. "They don't have function in the individual words but in the coming together of the words."
And it's the same with her "self-created" language, heard in 'Oldster by Xilin River' and the gorgeous 'Lagu Lagu,' the latter mixing Chinese harp with electronic beeps and beats behind the singer's pure, beautiful voice. The individual words are not important. The context is.
"To create a language that only you know, that apart from you no one understands, is meaningless," she says. "So my self-created language can only be with the my music, coming out naturally when my emotions meet with my music. I created such a sound system, and the important thing is it's a carrier of my emotions."
Thus far it's worked well. Sa Dingding (if you meet her, address her simply by her given name, Dingding, by the way) has earned accolades both at home and abroad. In China, 'Alive' earned her both Album of the Year and Best New Artist awards after its release there last year, and she will be a featured performer at the first big post- Olympic Games concert in the new Olympic Stadium in October, an event to raise money aimed at rebuilding schools in the areas devastated by the recent earthquakes. In England, meanwhile, she's been chosen to perform in the prestigious WOMAD Festival on Sunday, July 27, as well at the world-music portion of the esteemed Proms concerts at London's Royal Albert Hall on July 30, the latter in recognition of her winning the BBC Radio 3 World Music Award for Asia this spring. And, of course, it doesn't hurt that she has as striking a visual sense as musical one, with photos of her often colorful, fashion-mag-worthy adaptations of traditional elements.
No matter what language she sings, what kind of technology she uses in the settings or where she travels, though, she always is carrying her Mongolian origins. "A lot of traditional music in the Mongolian grasslands, horse-head fiddles -- yes, it's part of my music," she says. "I think in my music you can almost feel the grasslands."
But did that carry back to the grasslands themselves? "I performed after this album was released in Inner Mongolia several times," she says. "People there like the music very much. The feelings are not the same as the music they heard originally. But they can hear that there is some kind of relationship with the culture there."
The real tradition of the grasslands, she suggests, is "to be singing freely and creating freely. We cannot find the very first person who sang the songs on the grassland. They all died. So every song we listen to is re-sung by people, not the original thing. The only thing the same is the feeling. What I want to do is the same feeling, related to the original culture."
Maybe a good place to start investigating Chinese music, then, would be with ... Sa Dingding.