RNCM Manchester 20th May 2010
Chinese singer Sa Dingding came to international attention during 2008 with her debut album and quickly established a rapport with British audiences via appearances at both Womad and the BBC Proms. With her second album ‘Harmony’ (Wrasse), Sa has returned to the UK with an all-Chinese band and a sound that typifies her approach to music, a melting pot of influences comprising Chinese traditional and contemporary Western. The traditional element is provided by the use of the pipa, a pear-shaped four-string lute not dissimilar to the mandolin and the guzheng, a zither with sixteen or more strings, the latter producing a sound that oscillates between harp, harpsichord and marimba all rolled into one. Both instruments are most ably played by Zhang Yi. However, by clever use of keyboards, the Chinese element is reinforced by programming traditional instrumentation riffs and strings. In contrast the Western component comes together with the use of conventional
bass guitar, drums and vamping on keyboards.
Communication between East and West is a key theme to Dingding’s philosophy and non-verbal dialogue comes in the form of her visual performance which recalls the young Kate Bush in performance. Sometimes swinging form side to side, sometimes prostrate on the floor for dramatic effect, Sa immediately attracts the eye with her traditional dress in burnt orange and turquoise. Sa’s voice is high-pitched and slightly nasal, but remarkably flexible, even bluesy in places, and this enables her to engage in vocal gymnastics including the practice of her own invented language. This is best exemplified on the song, ‘Yun Yun Nan Nan’. Fusing Chinese and Western musics is no easy task and does not necessarily work for every song. On one uptempo piece the rock influences are simply not melodic enough to mix successfully, but it is surprising overall how well the seemingly disparate elements do combine to good effect. Far more successful are the mid-tempo songs where the bass and drum combination enables a number to build and bubble up in intensity while the subtle effects of the keyboards from Peng Bo and traditional instrumentation provide a fine counterbalance. An English language song, ‘Lucky day’, receives an almost whispered delivery from Dingding with the bass riff sounding as though it has been borrowed from Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a lifetime’. On the slower numbers, it is the haunting sound of the keyboard and the guzheng that compliment Sa’s voice, especially on the wordless vocals of one number where a programmed violin accompanies.
Sa is eager throughout to communicate her thoughts in English with the audience and explain in particular how her interest in music was stimulated by staying with her grandmother in inner Mongolia. This led to the beginning of Sa the songwriter. One song, ‘Pomegranate woman’, is devoted to women in South East China where there are no less than twenty-six ethnic groups. Here the symbolism of the fruit is used to depict the harsh outer appearance of the women, contrasted with the softer and beautiful inner self. Unquestionably, this is one of the evening’s highlights when the new and the traditional work best together over a slow nu-soul inspired beat accompaniment and gorgeous pipa strumming. Keyboards here provide added texture and the band have clearly interiorised many of the western sounds that they now feel at ease with. The best is reserved for almost last with the incredibly catchy and compelling ‘Hua’, a song about everlasting love according to Sa and one that illuminates the use of wordless vocals. Sa encourages the audience to wave their hands in the air, which they respond to in kind with mobile phone lights in the dark creating a quasi-candlelit ambience. For the hi-energy tempo of ‘Blue heart’, Sa reassures the audience that lucky blue heart is for them.
After a final bow and a comment from the keyboardist, ‘It’s all rock and roll’, the concert comes to a logical close. The concert as a whole is an illustration of how from a cultural perspective globalisation has facilitated greater experimentation between musical cultures. Sa Dingding may just be among the first wave of musicians to exploit these cross-cultural exchanges.