Live Review: Sa Dingding
Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin
24 August 2008
Sa Dingding is something of a media phenomenon. Perhaps this is because China’s famously awful pop industry has finally exported something less inevitable than the ‘Chinese Boyzone’; indeed she is billed as the ‘Chinese Björk’. The twenty-something is gifted with the sort of heritage most can only barely picture: her father was Han Chinese and her mother from Inner Mongolia. Dingding was raised as a nomad in the extreme north of China by her grandmother. While travelling to university in Beijing, she spent time in Tibet and the equally endangered Laghu province, where she learned both her trademark extended vocal technique and the languages in which she now sings. I presume the extra element of pop-electronica came from Beijing.
With all this world-beat acumen, the Festival of World Cultures in Dún Laoghaire sounds like a perfect Irish platform, having played WOMAD in London the previous week. Sadly, not so. The music Dingding and her band play is more suited to rock venues, and to an audience several decades younger than the audience in the Pavilion, who were greatly affronted by having to stand for the performance and instead sat cross-legged (and generally cross) on the floor, impatiently awaiting entertainment.
Dingdings’s entry was theatrical: in dimmed lighting, with a harmonic-rich drone on the Tibetan medicine bowl, and Chinese cymbal splashes and synth touches reminiscent of early Clannad, the tone was set. Dressed in immaculate rags adorned with Buddhist imagery, her face expressing some infinite sadness, Dingding began with a song in her self-invented language, which later fused into the more up-beat and radio-friendly ‘Alive’. The addition of some highly entertaining dancers cum martial artists failed, however, to distract from Dingding’s nervous and imperfect performance: her ornaments went astray, her chest-voice switches were full of intonation problems, and she was apparently uncomfortable with her head microphone.
Dingding did settle down somewhat, and ‘Mama Tian Na’ was excellent, but the ridiculously frequent costume changes meant that the singer was actually only on stage for maybe half of the hour-long concert. Her band and dancers, however, held the show together and covered the singer’s absences expertly. A flag dance with a Mongolian horse-head fiddle solo was particularly impressive. I wonder if we actually heard her entire repertoire: ‘Chinagirl’, from her first album, was a Eurovision nul points in the grand tradition of Chinese pop, and, incredibly, by the final song, ‘Holy Incense’, Dingding looked and sounded tired. The Chinese Björk? Not by a long shot.
Published on 1 November 2008