Sa Dingding is not interested in rules, conventions or expectations. With a new album out in May 2014, she’s here to take on all the critics.
by Coco Shen and Christoper Russell
The year is 2012. Sa Dingding steps out onto the stage of the world’s most watched television event clad in an elaborate outfit of golden filigree and beading. The CCTV Spring Festival Gala was watched by over 700 million people that year, 700 million people who heard Sa’s ethereal voice singing her breakthrough single ‘Alive’.
A Journey to Self Discovery
Although she performed ‘Alive’ in Mandarin, the song also comes in a Sanskrit version. Known as the Empress of Sanskrit music, Sa’s music takes elements from China’s ethnic minorities, and pays tribute to heaven and earth, to the physical and the spiritual. The half-Han, half-Mongolian Sa Dingding spent her formative years living the nomadic life on the broad Inner Mongolian grasslands, an experience that has shaped her entire outlook on music and life.
Sa’s early career performing electronic dance music was surprisingly conventional, but in an industry saturated with processed pop and interchangeable idols, Sa found that her music was not fulfilling her true self: “When I was young, my music path was designed by teachers and catered to the music market,” she recalls, and calls her the music that she was releasing in those days “childish”. After launching several popular singles, she made the bold decision to withdraw from the spotlight and embarked on a soul-searching mission to the far away corners of China.
During those years of self-discovery, Sa travelled to the cultural heartlands of the country as well as remote villages far removed from modern influence. The journey gave her time to reflect and meditate. When she returned to the limelight, it was with a whole new style; the manufactured pop was gone, and the mysterious sounds of Sa Dingding had taken its place.
Not only does Sa sing in Mandarin, Tibetan and Sanskrit, she also sings in a made up language all her own, used to convey the emotions that existing words cannot articulate. Like Sigor Ros, Lisa Gerald, The Cocteau Twins and Bjork before her, this unintelligible language is her spiritual release, her way “to communicate with God”. Throughout her travels, she created music from her experiences, such that each song held a depth of personal experience that was too often lacking in the pop music industry.
The album ‘Alive’ was a success both at home and abroad, especially abroad, making Sa one of the few Chinese singers to really win the attention of a Western audience. She became the first Chinese singer to win a BBC Radio 3 World Music Award and the first Chinese singer to be nominated for a Grammy.
She followed up ‘Alive’ with two more critically acclaimed albums – ‘Harmony’, produced by Marius de Vries, and then ‘The Coming Ones’, which delved into her experiences of a remote Yunnan village. The music is so truly heartfelt that one cannot help but be moved by the magnitude of emotion pouring from it.
Breaking the Rules
Sa Dingding’s upcoming album will come as a shock to some listeners. Produced by British producer Conrank, the album consists largely of reworkings of Sa’s previous material but what a reworking it is. Sa’s clean vocals soar over a sea of electronic beats and dubstep drops, music that has taken influence from far and wide to come together to create something that’s unheard of before now. Sa’s attitude to musical boundaries is clearly dismissive at best: “Music can be divided into many categories; you shouldn’t define your songs by it, but use it to see the songs from a more detailed perspective. There will be new content in my new record, but style just means a beat, and my music can’t be described by a beat.”
Although dubstep and EDM (electronic dance music) are not unfamiliar concepts to the worldly Chinese music fan, the move is still a risk for an artist like Sa who built much of her fan base upon the foundations of her embracing of Chinese folk music. Not only that, but take a look at the top songs on Baidu music and you’ll find one syrupy ballad after another, a clear indicator of prevailing tastes in the country. Nonetheless, it is a calculated risk, matched by Sa’s dedication to the process and her willingness to experiment, though she admits: “musicians are usually adamant in their opinions and even stubborn”. “She’s so open and dedicated,” remarks Conrank, “everyday we’d come in at 11 or 12 and we’d still be going at three or four in the morning. When her people first approached me about producing her album, I sent them samples of ballads, but they sent back artists like Skrillex.”
A Transformative Process
In person, Sa Dingding is diminutive compared to her larger than life stage presence and she dresses in fashionable dark tones. Extremely down to earth and tending towards reserved, she speaks earnestly about her beliefs but her voice becomes animated whenever the topic turns to music, it is not hard to imagine her eagerness to try her hand at styles that other artists might shy away from.
The openness in the creative process means that the resulting music is about more than grafting a monolithic form of Western music on to the traditional Chinese sounds Sa is best known for: in fact, the electronic elements are as variegated as the source material. Conrank explains that they wanted to make something timeless, and to that end his production work has drawn on various strains of electronic music of just focusing on any on style that’s currently in vogue. The result is one that transcends the usual ‘East meets West’ clichés. Drawing upon elements from a range of cultures, but beholden to none of them, the album exists in a space of its own.
If that risks sounding chaotic, then Sa’s sophisticated and soaring vocals are a constant presence to anchor the music, and fans will recognize many elements from Harmony and The Coming Ones – roughly 70% of the vocals on the album are taken from her previous work. But for all her talent, Sa knows the importance of using her voice sparingly: “I believe we should avoid showing off techniques in singing,” she told VANTAGE. “You may have a very nice high-pitched voice, but it doesn’t mean you have to use it in your music. I’ve always believed in ‘hidden weapons’ when competing with others; no matter how hard the battle is, you should hide your techniques.”
The truth is, no matter how much Sa hides her skills; her voice has a power that can’t be ignored. It stands out from the digitized notes, the elaborate clothes, the dance performances and modern technology. Her voice dominates. “I used western products to make the music, but that just means they were made there. Eventually, through music, they are all transformed into emotions and descriptions.” And transformed they are, into something smart, ancient and primal, but somehow still free of traditional constraints. This has become her emblem, her essence and her legacy.