At the ripe age of 25, Sa Dingding is on a renegade mission. While many of her peers in China and on the Asian continent seem content to churn out sugar-coated formulaic pop tunes, Dingding won’t settle for anything short of music that bridges cultural and generational gaps and penetrates the spiritual psyches of listeners from all backgrounds.
So far, so good. She recently won the BBC Radio 3 World Music Award for the Asia-Pacific Region. This followed a handful of other milestones: her debut album, released when she was 18, earned her the title of “Best Dance Music Singer” in China two years later, she won a CCTV singing contest. Her alluring, ethereal voice, coupled with melodies drawn from Chinese folk music and Western electronica, has drawn in audiences young and old. Her latest album, Alive, is her U.S. debut and features songs rendered in an array of languages— Sanskrit, Mandarin, Tibetan, and even her own invented tongue.
Her music aptly reflects her own enigmatic outlook on life. “I have two interests,” she says through an interpreter on the phone from Beijing. “One is music, because I’m a modern young person living in this world. I’m very interested in all kinds of modern music—especially electronic music and electronic techniques. On the other hand, I’m also very interested in ancient Chinese culture, and all the ancient cultures around the world.
“Since I was born to a Mongolian mother and a Han Chinese father,” she continues, “I have this kind of minority blood in my body, so I’m very interested in minority culture in China and around the world.” It was when she realized she could somehow mesh her knowledge of the modern world with the ancient histories of the cultures she was so immersed in that Dingding’s music started to take form. As a result, young audiences, she finds, are particularly drawn to the electronic elements in her music, while older listeners find the stories she tells empathetic and reflective of their own pasts.
One of the most pertinent aspects of Dingding’s musical philosophy stems from her studies of Buddhism. Spirituality was ever-present during her childhood in the grasslands of Mongolia, where she lived with her grandmother for several years. “From the grasslands I saw without any interference of tall buildings,” she recalls. “I could see very far and I could hear very faraway voices. So my eyesight and listening were en