Upon arrival in Beijing, the first thing to strike those unfamiliar with China is the newness of it all. It begins at the airport. So vast and elegant and empty is this hub of future traffic that the far reaches of its taxiways disappear in an otherworldly (though probably industrial) mist. In town, hardly any building looks older than about ten years. Most cars seem to have been rolled out of the showroom ten minutes ago, and the department store round the corner from our hotel is stuffed to the gills with cheap, bootleg designer gear so up to date that Armani, Lacoste and Paul Smith probably don’t know yet that they have designed it.
We have arrived in Beijing to witness a concerted effort by the Chinese wing of Universal Records. Her name is Sa Dingding, and she has nothing at all in common with the somewhat shrill and derivative Chinese pop music we may have made a casual acquaintance with in one of the ‘China Towns’ dotted around the Western world. She may have a little more in common with the artists that have represented the many different styles of Chinese musical traditions on the World Music stages of European and American summer festivals. Indeed, Sa Dingding has appeared at some of these during the tours that accompanied the release of her first record in the West, Alive, eighteen months or so ago. But the partnership was a somewhat uneasy one. Sa Dingding, with her pronounced electronica and rock leanings, was considered a little too glitzy for comfort by many purist (not to mention conservative) members of the audience. Alive may have won Sa Dingding the BBC’s Asia/Pacific World Music Album of the Year Award, but her sights are set on the more adventurous wings of the Western pop charts. Here, with artists such as Kate Bush, Bat For Lashes and Björk for company, she may well blossom into the first global star singer/songwriter from the Far East.
The Friday evening showcase is at the Reignwood Theatre, an intimate space painted in gold and deep reds, with vast bouquets of lilies everywhere. Drinks and tidbits are dished out in a glamorously crowded foyer, as they are at any prestigious London showcase of this type. I’m soon clobbered by a Chinese television crew who want to ask me questions: why is it that everyone outside China is so interested in this singer when here in China no one knows her?
I can respond to the first part of the question: Sa Dingding has a spectacular image. Her self-designed clothes, all inspired by the colours and designs of her native Mongolia, are as original as they are striking; clearly the expression of an adventurous mind. The same goes for the music. Highly innovative fusions of traditional Chinese and rock rhythms and melodies, coupled with trance influenced electronica. Why she should be ‘unknown’ in China, I just don’t know. Sa Dingding’s performance is, as expected, highly impressive. She commands the stage with easy grace and a powerful voice.
Even when the sound system breaks down after the first few bars of the first song, her confidence remains strong. The band is young, all members are Chinese, sharp and foppishly styled. To her right are two men in black playing traditional instruments like pipa and a Mongolian horse-hair fiddle called matouqin. To her left are two fierce-looking Mongolians clad in what we presume is traditional warrior gear playing various horns and shaman drums. Behind this front line there is the back line of a conventional rock outfit: keyboards, drums, guitar and bass, and if there is ever a problem with the performance, this is where it lies. Now and then these enthusiastic rockers veer just a little too close to Eurovision-type over-indulgence. Whenever traditional instruments and electronic loops are predominant, however, Sa Dingding truly sings.
Next day, we arrange the interview. We are in a bright and large hotel room, sitting in the glare of professional spotlights on a sofa. To my right, sat awkwardly behind my shoulder, sits Sa Dingding’s long-standing assistant, acting as an interpreter. With the constant interruptions for translation, the allocated twenty minutes fly past in an annoyingly short instant. The artist’s reluctance to speak English is odd. The previous time we met, in April 2008 in the corridors of the BBC, she was quite capable of expressing fairly complex thoughts in the foreign language. With Alive, the singer informs us, she was concerned with helping people to ‘get back to focus on the relationship between human beings and religion’. ‘Since then, I’ve realised that there is something more important in life for people, namely the relationship between human beings and nature.’ Musically, she says, she wanted to make the new album sound more Chinese. ‘For instance, yesterday in the show there was a bass player. But actually on the album the bass lines are produced with a Chinese bamboo instrument. ‘Also, I wanted to find beats that belong to China. The one rhythm that goes kan-kan-ta-kan-kan-ta-kan-ta-ka-ta, that’s typically Chinese. When people talk about beat in China, they typically think about that rhythm.’
Sa Dingding has lived in Beijing for many years. How has she experienced the changes that have hit the city? ‘People should pay more attention to the things that have changed,’ she says. ‘It’s not just the buildings and the cars that have changed. It has also happened to traditional culture.’ The rediscovery and preservation of traditional cultures is clearly a passion. The new CD booklet, for instance, lists the ethnic origin of all the backing singers; ‘In China there are a lot of different ethnic groups. They’re living together and mixing with each other’s lives. In the course of this process some of these groups are in danger of losing their own culture, language and music until perhaps they will be ignored entirely. I want to use my own way to keep all these cultures alive and to remind people that in this world there are all these groups, they are alive, and they have their own music and their own culture.’ We would like to ask one or two political questions, of course.
However, time and circumstances do not favour such probing. One of the responses she gave during our last encounter will have to suffice here. At the time, just as she was arriving in London, protesters had attacked the Olympic torch-bearer on his way through the town to the Beijing Olympics in protest against the attitude towards human rights by the Chinese authorities. ‘How do you feel when you see these protests, and all of a sudden, since you happen to be here, you’re seen by the media as a spokesperson for China?’ I asked her. ‘I have been given the very big chance to introduce modern China through my music. It is an opportunity to bring our cultures to Western people. I can feel a very friendly attitude from the West. People are very curious about Chinese culture and I’m willing to share with them what I have through my music.’
My initial request for an interview with an executive from the Chinese record company, to get some background information about the workings of the local music business, was originally met without difficulty. But when I arrive, the record-company people seem suspicious and unsure how to react. When at last they can think of someone who might fit the bill, Annalinda Booth, they give me a frustratingly short ten minutes with her. It seems the local music business is not quite yet used to our foreign quest for information. Booth is a British A&R consultant who somehow ended up in Beijing three years ago, and has worked for Universal China ever since. Sa Dingding, she explains, is an unusual artist for China: ‘Local talent is very hard to break for a million reasons. Traditionally Hong Kong and Taiwanese artists have found it easier to find success in mainland China. Mainland China, for some reason, finds it easier to accept an artist who is already a star somewhere else. But of course one of the remits of A&R in Beijing is to concentrate on developing domestic talent, no matter how hard it is.’
Thus, in China, Sa Dingding falls between two stools. On the one hand, her music has very much more depth than Far Eastern pop music – and indeed a lot of Western pop music – generally has. This does not endear her to the television programmers and their belief in strict adherence to the tried-and-tested pop format. On the other hand, China does not have an extended network of live venues where new artists can build up a reputation and a fan base through concerts and tours. Television performances are the first step towards a pop career. The concerts follow when the artist is established. It is one way, apart from sponsorship and ringtones, of making serious money from music in China. ‘In the West, everyone is reeling from the fact that the income from selling CDs has dropped dramatically,’ says Booth. ‘In China you’ve never relied on selling CDs for your income because everything is pirated straight away. In a way, the Chinese are now ahead of the game. It’s always been normal here to sign an artist to a record company not just to sell his or her CDs, but also to manage him and to own his copyrights. In Britain it’s what we’d call a 360-degree deal. I remember when it was illegal for a record company in the UK to manage an artist. But that’s how it works over here.’
The fact that Sa Dingding doesn’t tick the boxes for any kind of conventional musical career in China is regarded as an asset, however, and being an atypical Chinese singer makes her rather more attractive to Western audiences: ‘Sa Dingding comes in a wonderful package,’ says Booth. ‘Her music and her whole persona, the way she looks, dresses, her character – the combination appeals very much to a Western audience who probably wouldn’t be so interested in a typical Chinese pop star who wears clothes they wouldn’t think were trendy, sings in Mandarin and isn’t musically as sophisticated as they’ve come to expect.’
Sa Dingding spent the first years of her life in the steppes of Inner Mongolia. Aged six, she went to live with her parents in the city. ‘Life wasn’t hard. We had enough milk. I had many beautiful dreams and sang many, many songs. I wasn’t used to city life. But I grew up. I came to understand that the land and the sky are the same in the steppes and in the city. What matters is the heart.’ The directness and simplicity, not to mention naivety, of such a pronouncement take the cynical Londoner aback. How to respond? Am I being unfair when I see this folkloric platitude as a means to cover up a multitude of stories and complications? I suspect that my misgivings are wrong. I’m approaching Sa Dingding from the point of view of a Western journalist used to stars of all shapes and forms talking about themselves, and only themselves, and I suspect that in China entirely different criteria apply.
After moving to Beijing in 2001 she studied European and Chinese classical music, as well as traditional Chinese music, at the music academy. Still a teenager, she triumphed in a televised talent competition, resulting in a debut album she regards today as ‘childish’, having been given no choice in the material or any say in the production work. In her spare time she began to compose her own music at home, drawing influence from the likes of the Chemical Brothers, Nine Inch Nails and Peter Gabriel. A demo tape found its way to the freshly set up local branch of Universal China Records and she was given the means to record Alive, and the follow-up Harmony, professionally. ‘I would like to find inspiration from every part of Chinese culture. I feel that nowadays people are leading more simple lives than before; they care less about themselves. I try to remind people with my example that they should pay more attention to their culture.’
When recently attending a weekend workshop where various ‘real ethnic musicians without backing tracks’ were playing and discussing their music, she was interested by the amount she was able to learn for her own album. ‘For me, it’s not just a matter of protecting the traditional forms of music, it’s just as important to develop them and keep them alive. I found the show fascinating. The students who were there got bored quickly and started to talk. But things are starting to change. I’m getting a lot of letters from young fans who tell me that my music has been an inspiration to them.’
Sa Dingding, Harmony (Universal China/Wrasse Records)