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Alive, the first album made by the Chinese Mongolian singer Sa Dingding to be aimed at markets outside her native land, is undeniably a work of prodigious talent. Sa Dingding sings in Mandarin, Sanskrit, Tibetan and languages of her own creation; she plays the zheng (a 25-string zither), and other instruments with a rare delicacy; her voice, either singing or chanting, has a presence that’s deeply unusual. She is also adept at incorporating digital sounds into her recordings. Visually, she works an image of dramatic glamour. It’s not for nothing that Sa Dingding has been called the Chinese answer to Björk.

But whereas Björk, giving a concert in Beijing recently, shouted ‘Tibet!’ from the stage, Sa Dingding’s stance on this seems non-committal. Which is curious, considering the inclusion of Tibetan mantras on Alive and the fact that she appears on the album’s cover in a dress adorned with the figure of a Buddha. Is Sa Dingding simply a young musician, like Dadawa before her, who has strayed into territory more contentious than she realized? It’s possible. It’s also more probable that, whatever the sympathetic treatment meted out here to Tibetan themes, Alive is, in at least some aspects, the product of a colonizing history from which it cannot stand truly apart.

Nevertheless, it would be harsh to judge Alive entirely on this. It plays well; it is an album that, whatever else, is the product of capability and genuine inquiry. It’s just that one might prefer a little more of the latter.

New Internationalist issue 415 magazine cover This article is from the September 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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