21 July 2008

Monday's mp3: China Rising(?)

Chinese pop music is a vast territory largely unmapped by Western musical cartographers. For proof, check out the brevity of the Wikipedia article on C-pop and its list of Chinese musicians. Even as someone with both feet in the stream of global music, I could name only a handful of Chinese artists, including Wu Man, Dadawa, Mei Han, and Twelve Girls Band. Not to politicize this, but I could name at least as many Tibetan artists. And even more artists from the tiny nation of Tuva.

From what I understand, this may be due to the nature of the Chinese music industry. While Western artists and labels are continuing to fight technological change in the form of blogs, filesharing, and CD priracy, the Chinese apparently have moved on, with artists and labels expecting to make more money from live performances, and less from recordings. Perhaps this explains the relative paucity of Chinese music making across borders to the West. Or perhaps with a domestic market of 1.3 billion, Chinese artists don't feel the pressure to market internationally. Or maybe it's just the Western preference for the more familiar sounds of Latin and African lands.
Sa Dingding on SoundRoots.org
Still, with the Olympics a mere discus toss away, I'm expecting to hear more Chinese music in the next couple of months. The first wave of that tide may be Sa Dingding.

We've had Eastern pop diva incursions before. Uzbekistan gave us Yulduz Usmanova, and Shiela Chandra's pop-fusion opened many ears to the sounds of India. Both were successful, but more as individuals than as the start of waves of similar artists. From what I hear and see of Sa Dingding, I expect her success may be along those lines. Of course, when dozens of other Chinese pop artists become household words in Seattle and the Chinese musical tsumani is lapping at my knees, I will happily pick up my chopsticks and eat those words.

I was a bit resistent to give her CD a listen at all, not least because it seems to be burdened with an excess of hype (the Asian Bjork! the next Enya!). Sa Dingding is a pop star in Asia, having sold more than two million albums. Her emergence and signing to major label Universal just before the China-hosted Olympics may be a coincidence. Or maybe not. And early promotion seems to be based on her Chineseness and the gorgeous photo shoot that adorns the album's artwork as much as on her remarkable voice.

Sa Dingding - Alive CD
[mp3] Sa Dingding: Holy Incense (Tibet Version)
from the album Alive

In any case, she's carefully straddling rickety fence between art and politics in a year where China is under intense scrutiny. She reportedly said she supports China's tough policies toward Tibet; she also has a song on this album in Tibetan, and says she promotes Tibetan culture as well as that of the little known Lagu minority in China. And her musical embrace of Buddhism and her heritage (she was born in Inner Mongolia to a Mongolian mother and Chinese father) may make her a less than ideal Communist Party mouthpiece.

Adding to the puzzle is the complete lack of liner notes or song lyrics. Sure, they mention that she's singing in Chinese, Tibetan, a self-created language, or Sancrit (sic), but what's she actually saying in those lushly orchestrated pieces? No idea. Still, the music is engaging, if a bit overproduced (think PBS concert fundraiser) and it'll be interesting to see if Sa Dingding can appeal to a wider audience than, say, the 12 Girls Band.

By the way, keep an eye on the Christian Science Monitor in the next few days for a Sa Dingding article/interview that just might feature quotes from yours truly.

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