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Sa Dingding
Written by lloyd bradford (brad) syke   
Monday, 09 March 2009 22:20
Sa DingdingIt might sound like the height of patronising, occidentally ethnocentric ignorance, and it probably is, but you've got to admit, you couldn't invent a better name for a pop singer.

Of course, Sa Dingding (her real name, as far as I know) is a lot more than that. As part of the Hemispheres world music series, at (the) SOH, the exotic, even esoteric beauty of Sa is very much in evidence, visually and aurally.

Her fine features emulate her fragile, refined vocals, which are delivered, by turns, in charming flurries of close-to-perfect English (spoken) & Mandarin; (predictably enough, but where was Kevin47 when you really needed him?). Not nearly as predictable are songs sung in Tibetan (what does the regime have to say about that, I wonder) and, of all things, Sanskrit(!); to say nothing of a language of her own invention, which arguably communicated best of all. This last is the embodiment of a more pervasive ethos, a telltale signifier for her approach to music and the fruits it bears: 'before we start to talk, we know how to sing'. (Well, maybe in, say, Beijing; I'm not so sure about, say, Bulli.)

She's as freaky as Bjork (to whom she's been compared before this), with a wardrobe to make Madonna look frockin' shockin'. I shudder to contemplate her costume budget, which must, I expect, easily exceed the average Aussie stimulus package. After all, we're not talking a pair of tights, a belt and chintzy blouse, we're talking full-on gowns; worthy of a dynastic court. In fact, her show could be reviewed as couture.

While on the visual aesthetic, lighting design was spectacularly effective; cutting-edge, without the technology taking away from mood, or taste, as it so easily can. The stage was bathed in red, lime and purple; which might sound nauseating, on paper, but which worked a treat, in context.

And let's not forget her three male dancers. Or martial artistes. Or acrobats. Actually, they were all three, all three; adding much colour, interest and athletic inspiration.

To augment her delicate, fine-boned appearance, Ms Dingding has nailed a haunting, daunting hybrid of moves, which would seem to incorporate elements of Chinese classical and folk dance, as well as some flavours better associated with pole-dancing. I was left wondering how her segue from Buddhistic, prayerful prostration to erotic, hair-tossing, seated gyrations might play with the devout.

She is, stylistically, unto herself: a perplexing, unclassifiable entity which has to be seen, heard and, well, experienced. Many, I expect, myself and companion included, no doubt found her challenging, especially given our lack of exposure to Chinese culture at large and folk traditions, in particular.

Nonetheless, there is much that is more easily assimilable, such as the keyboard-driven arrangements, peppered with lo-fi effects and drum-&-bass patterns. God only knows what much of the world did before Roland, Korg and Apple took to the stage! There was a vague sense that the traditional instruments and live drums, while by no means superfluous, might've been there more for live cred than musical necessity. Having said that, one of the highlights was the versatile & virtuosic Chinese lutanist (at least, I took his instrument to be a lute; of which there are many types, so I won't hazard a guess).

Leaving the second, largely unbidden, improvised encore to one side (I think the drummer dropped an eccy, or something, after the first curtain-call, given his plot-lost perf in the second), SD's group melded beautifully, providing a constant soundscape for her ethereal & somewhat eccentric singing, which veers from sweet, to soaring, Carla Bruni-breathy and almost edgy. To my ear, untrained in the Chinese tonal palette, she also seemed to veer off-key, albeit in the most innocuous of ways, here-and-there.

For anyone hungering for something completely different, to put it in Pythonesque parlance, Sa ought fit the bill. Hers is, truly, a distinctive musicality; essentially,  folk-infused electronica, for lovers of skew-whiff soul, chillout and much else contemporaneous. At 25, she's been singing for 22 years(!); but that's not all. She composes, choreographs, moves, shakes and is a multi-instrumentalist. Moreover, in a world enslaved by pop princesses and dirty divas done-up cheap, in a mutton-to-lamb kinda way, Sa seems to transcend her peers, through authenticity, an unfettered, eclectic vision and genuine freshness. She has both style and content.

She is the sum of all her ethnic parts and influences; as richly-layered as her unapproachably elegant costumes. Born to a Mongolian mother & Chinese father, she was, without a shadow of a doubt, the first of her countrypersons to sing in Sanskrit; just don't ask me how it came about. This fact is emblematic of what makes her so very intriguing and compelling, even for one neither versed in her debut album or its undercurrents.

For sheer, diversionary, restorative musical escapism, there's little to compare with this exciting, innovative Oriental fusionist, who seamlessly melds venerably ancient Chinese cultural motifs with Western pop ballads and grooves. Come to think of it, there's nothing with which to compare her.

Memorable; adorable; graceful; universal. The deceptively demure Dingding rings my bell.

See & hear what I'm talking about: .

Sa Dingding

Venue: Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall | Bennelong Point Sydney
Date: 8 Mar 2009
Tickets: $99 - $49
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