Alive is exploratory yet ultimately gentle. It's more daring than most of China's mainstream croon-pop, but similarly unwilling to strike out at its audience.
English-language articles about Sa Dingding tend to mention two things. One, she is pretty. Two, her album is beautifully timed, being released, as it is, at a time when the interest of the Western world in China is growing, thanks to the country's prosperity and the upcoming Beijing Olympics.
Touring the UK in April, she was interviewed by the Independent and inadvertently attracted angry criticism when she responded to a question about Tibet. "I am a musician so I concentrate on making music, but I am also Chinese so I definitely support our government policy on this issue," she said, and some people wondered online if they should picket her appearance at the BBC3 World Music Awards, where she eventually won the award for the Asia/Pacific region, receiving a statue that looked like a metallic cross between a kidney and a heart.
Alive is her debut release in the West. At home in China, it is her second album, following 2001's Dong Ba La. Dong Ba La was "childish," she says now. There was too much outside interference and she had too little influence over the result. Alive is closer to the music she wants to make.
That music turns out to be a benign electronic mixture of instruments and folk songs from different Chinese ethnicities, with Dingding accompanying each song in a sweetly ductile voice that slides, comes to a point, sticks for a moment in a pleasing enjambment, then moves on. On one song there is a lagging violin lilt that sounds like a morin khuur, on another she attempts Tibetan. In "Oldster by the Xilin River", the voices of men, fishermen perhaps, sing a deep heave-ho chant, while Dingding's high female voice streams serenely past, teasing itself out with a slur like a dragging leg and querls of tonal quirk.
"Lagu Lagu" was inspired, she says, by a four-part harmony sung by the Lagu, or Lahu, people who live in Yunnan Province in the country's south, near the border between China and Burma. The Lagu are one of China's 56 designated ethnic minorities. Dingding herself was born in the Inner Mongolian region of China to a Mongolian mother and Han Chinese father.
David Hutcheon, writing about her for the Times, asked, "If we can … indulge the musical eccentricities of Björk, shouldn’t there be a place on our shelves for a Chinese pioneer?" Whoever figured out the heading for the article picked up on that line and misleadingly called Dingding "the Asian Björk," a label that has been seized on, passed around, and repeated. Really, though, there's very little that's Björkish about Alive. There's nothing as interior as Vespertine or as beat-driven as Post, or as willing to risk repelling its audience as Medulla. Anyone wanting an "Asian Björk" would be better off with Seven Days, the last album from Dingding's compatriot Zhu Zhequin, who goes by the name Dadawa. Alive is exploratory yet ultimately gentle. It's more daring than most of the country's lovestruck mainstream croon-pop, but similarly unwilling to strike out at its audience.
It seems that if any musician is going to wean our ears away from African and Latin music onto the Chinese stuff, then it's going to be one like this, someone who makes music that is not Chinese opera, not mainstream pop, but a mixture of roots and modernity. Someone with a popular touch, too, which Sa Dingding definitely has. Björk isn't the only Western musician she's been compared to. The publicity for the Harrogate Music Festival refers to her as "the Chinese Enya" for her calmness and her chants. She might appeal to some of the same people, but I don't think she's Enya any more than she's Björk. If she has to be The Chinese Something, then my contribution would be this: I'd call her the Chinese Deep Forest.