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Faux Tibetan music from Mongolian Barbie

April 1, 2009

Review by Douglas Heselgrave
Alive
March 25, 2009

Alive, the new album by the Mongolian raised
Chinese singer Sa Dingding is troubling on many
levels. Hailed as the embodiment of China’s new
cultural diversity, she has received many
accolades for incorporating Tibetan sounds and
aesthetics into her music. In itself, there is
nothing wrong with this. After all, many artists
from all over the globe have been influenced by
music from the far off Himalayan land. The
traditional music coming from the highest nation
in the world is certainly compellingly beautiful,
but the Disney-fied approximations of its music
that Sa Dingding dishes up here are facile at
best, and insulting and distasteful at worst.

At this point, no one needs to be reminded of the
Chinese destruction of Tibetan culture or the
ridiculous historical justifications the nation
used for stealing the country from its people.
Certainly, the world has changed a lot since 1959
when the Dalai Lama escaped with his life to
India, but recent events leading up to the 2008
Beijing Olympics have made the timing of Sa
Dingding’s first internationally released CD very
unfortunate. Given the current political climate,
it may be very difficult indeed for music
journalists in the western world to assess her songs solely on their own merit.

There is certainly an argument for letting music
exist outside of the confines of politics, but in
today’s world culture, art and politics are so
deeply intertwined as to make these distinctions
all but impossible. This is especially true in
the world music genre where aesthetics inevitably
lead a person to consider the artist’s country of
origin. To be fair, not all of Sa Dingding’s
songs are sung in Tibetan. Some of them are sung
in Chinese and a few are delivered in a nonsense
language that Sa Dingding created herself. She
has a pure and lovely voice, and it is important
to mention that there is nothing especially wrong
with her performance. It’s what the performances
allude to that is the most upsetting.

For many years, the expression of national pride
through cultural music has been all but banned in
Tibet. Like North Americans tried to do to their
own native people, the Chinese – especially
during the unfortunate years of the cultural
revolution – systematically did their best to
destroy Tibetan cultural identity. Monasteries,
schools and libraries were all destroyed, and in
some instances by merely speaking their own
language, Tibetans could be imprisoned or killed.
What an insult it is, then, to hear a Chinese
singer approximating Tibetan aesthetics in a pop
music vein that does nothing to honour the
tradition that the music arose from. Like another
Chinese singer, Dadawa, whose albums Sister Drum
(1995) and Voices from the Sky (1997) attracted
international attention by presenting Tibetan
music with all of the soul drained from it, Sa
Dingding presents a vision of Tibetan culture
that has nothing to do with Tibetan experience.
At its best, Alive is a kind of Buddhist High
School Musical for people who don’t want anything
troubling on their conscience. Please don’t
support Sa Dingding by purchasing this album. It
will only encourage her to release more watered down Tibetan inspired drivel.

Those wanting a more authentic experience of
Tibetan cultural music should listen to Ani
Choying Drolma and Steve Tibbet’s two excellent
albums of Tibetan influenced songs, Cho and
Selwa. Each is a challenging musical journey in
which Tibetan chant intersects with Tibbet’s
cutting edge ambient guitar soundscapes. Those
who prefer more traditional Tibetan music should
check out Yungchen Lhamo’s excellent albums on
Peter Gabriel’s Realworld label. Finally, there
is no better way to relax than by listening to
any of Tibetan flautist Nawang Khechog’s gorgeous
albums. The artists mentioned above make music worth hearing and supporting.

In the future, and if the world changes, Chinese
and Tibetan artists may be able to heal their
rifts, come together and make challenging and
beautiful music together. Hearing the travesty
that is Alive by Sa Dingding, that day still sounds a long way off.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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