Draped in multicolored silk flying like prayer flags, the exquisite singer, songwriter, and producer Sa Dingding croons in an invented language, a psychedelic Bodhisattva emblazoned on her dress. With a freedom learned on Inner Mongolia’s grasslands, she distills myriad musical cultures from the Tibetan plateau to the Pacific, searching for an understanding beyond language, a voice for the new China, and for a seriously infectious groove. The sensual sounds and spiritual truths she captures on Alive (Wrasse Records; U.S. release: July 29, 2008) translate China’s staggering cultural diversity into gorgeous global sounds.
With 55 recognized ethnic minority groups—and many others unrecognized officially—China’s cultural diversity surpasses Europe’s, and its multitude of musical traditions sparked Dingding’s imagination as she was crafting Alive’s pulsing beats and serpentine melodies. Yet Dingding’s senses an overarching unity that transcends culture and drives her creativity. “I feel I should keep the music’s original function and let the spirit world control the music,” Dingding explains. “And introduce more unknown culture, or barely known culture, to more people.”
Dingding’s connection to China’s little-known cultures runs deep. As a carefree, thoughtful little girl on Inner Mongolia’s grasslands, she looked on and listened as herders gathered around their cows, singing gently to encourage more and richer milk. She learned to use song, calling over the waving grass to her beloved Mongolian grandmother, letting her know she was coming home. Though Dingding’s life soon took her to the city and the university, she never forgot the sense of freedom and love of song she first encountered among China’s Mongols.
As a student, Dingding traveled to Yunnan Province in southern China, looking for ethnic music. She wound up in a Lagu village, where people speak a language related to Tibetan and weave together Buddhism, Christianity, and animism. There, she heard a surprising chorus sung in four-part harmony that villagers swore their ancestors had learned from an 18th-century Christian missionary. She was so taken with it that the villagers’ song became the opening for one of Alive’s tracks, “Lagu Lagu.” “I was very moved by their spirit, and I knew I had to introduce it to more people,” Sa recalls.
Another central source of Dingding’s inspiration is Tibet. “Mama Tien Na” uses words every Tibetan knows and loves, a traditional expression of gratitude to life’s teachers, the people, trees, plants, and animals that bring enlightenment. Dingding loved Tibet, but she had never been there: “When I created my album, I wanted to use just my imagination to travel around. I want to free my music.”
After finishing Alive, Dingding longed to see how close she’d come to capturing the spirit of the place and its people. “Though I sing songs in Tibetan, I didn’t go there until we shot a video in Western Tibet, near Nepal, in a place that is very hard to get to because of the high altitude, low oxygen levels, and long distances. I was the first singer to go there and make a video. But what really surprised me,” she muses, “was a painting I saw on the wall of an ancient palace there. You see, in my apartment, I had a little statue that wore an unusual outfit no one could place. On the palace walls, I saw figures in the same clothing as my little statue. A lot of things in the world are very mysterious and are connected together in ways we cannot know.”
Discovering hidden connections lies at the heart of Sa Dingding’s songs. In “Tuo Luo Ni,” Sa sings the Sanskrit scripture found in every Buddhist stupa, the sacred towers that grace every Buddhist place of worship. “I used this scripture as lyrics because it is very meaningful to everyone studying Buddhism around the world, and because Buddhist culture is an important part of Chinese culture,” she explains.
At the same time, Dingding uncovers the deeply personal by singing in her own, made-up language. After her grandmother passed away, she was struggling to find lyrics to express her longing and sorrow. “I wrote down some lyrics, but I felt that I could not find the love, how I missed her,” Dingding reflects. “So I changed my way. I searched my deep memory to find the language I used as a baby. When I went to record this new version, the engineers in the studio broke into tears. I was very surprised. I was even more surprised when I did another take and sang words with the same pronunciation as the first time. I knew I had stumbled onto something valuable.” For Sa Dingding, this invented language is a pathway to liberate listeners from their expectations and push them into deeper emotional territory.
The approach works, as Dingding’s Chinese fans are eager to do more than just listen. One song, “Flickering with Blossoms,” was based on lyrics submitted to her blog after she posted a melody and asked listeners to contribute lyrics. The words to this philosophical reflection on the choices we face in life were written by a young woman in a city in southern China. “We’ve never met, and I’ve never been there,” laughs Dingding. “But I do hope to meet her the next time I’m in the area.”
The freedom of expression that Sa feels in her work and encourages in her listeners, the same freedom she first tasted as a young child on the grasslands, is one element of Chinese culture Dingding longs to share with the world. “I feel China is more and more open every day for artists. Right now, I am free to make the kind of music I want to at this point in my life,” she explains. “What I really want to do is communicate with other people, especially in the West, through music, about our cultures.”
Like a Sanskrit prayer or a melody that invokes love without words, Sa Dingding’s songs strive for a deeper connection beyond culture. “In my music,” Dingding laughs, “nothing is impossible.”