10 June 2008

Sa Dingding: Overstated or false publicity?

The winning artists of BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music 2008 have been announced at a ceremony in London on the 10th of April. The winner of the Aisa/Pacific category was Sa Dingding (薩頂頂), a female artist of Chinese nationality, born in Inner Mongolia to a Mongolian mother and a Chinese father. It was her major label international debut album Alive, release by Universal Music in 2007, that won her the trophy.

I definitely have no doubt of her musicality, vocal techniques, creativity, image and so on, nor do I have the slightest interest in discussions about the controversy over her appropriation of Tibetan music or over issues such as 'ethnicity', 'authenticity' or whatever pedantic criticism that might be raised when dealing with 'world music'. Quite the other way around, I just wallow in the rich fabric of sounds of her impressive voice and all the electric tones.

However, firstly, I don't think the obviously ancient Sanskrit lyrics were written by herself, and secondly, I am sceptical about her knowledge of Sanskrit and wonder how and to what level she has studied Sanskrit.

On the BBC website, it goes:
Her recordings make full use of impressive linguistic abilities, featuring lyrics she has written in Mandarin, Sanskrit, Tibetan and the near-extinct Lagu language, as well as an imaginary self-created language which she says is generated from the emotions evoked by the music. (emphasis mine)
The lyrics of 'Alive (Mantra)', one song from the winning album, are said to be the Sanskrit Vajrasattva Mantra (follow the link for more details of this mantra). It is the chanting in this track that raises my suspicion.

Upon hearing this piece one day over the Internet, I was aware that what she intoned was actually the transliterated version of Vajrasattva Mantra in Tibetan, but not the original Sanskrit text. Even worse is her mispronunciation of some Tibetan words, which is a result of reading the modified Tibetan version through the transliteration of Tibetan into Chinese characters.

Vajrasattva Mantra is well known among many Chinese-speaking Buddhists, who practice Tibetan Buddhism but don't actually read Tibetan texts. Therefore, a text composed of Chinese characters roughly corresponding Tibetan pronunciation has long been prepared and there are a range of CDs of either pure recitation or melodised chanting against new-age-style back ground music available for them. It is not difficult to tell that Sa Dingding's Vajrasattva Mantra is Tibetan, and indeed mispronounced, rather than Sanskrit when comparing her recitation with the Sanskrit text and the Tibetan transliteration (follow the links and scroll down).

Moreover, I noticed later that 'Alive (Mantra)' is not the only case in the album. 'Tuo Luo Ni', another piece based on the Sanskrit Karandamudra Dharani Sutra (again follow the link and scroll down), is actually the Chinese-transliterated text as well.

I am absolutely not against her adaptation of the Chinese-transliterated in her musical work. The point is that if it is the Tibetan mantra, then it is Tibetan, not Sanskrit; if it is Chinese transliteration, then it is not the so claimed Sanskrit. It is simply wrong, particularly when introducing something from a distant culture into the global mass market, to mislead the audience.

If she had studied Sanskrit, as she claims or as reported in the media, she would have sung the mantra in proper Sanskrit. She probably not dare to explain in the liner notes or when interviewed that the sounds of Sanskrit mantra or sutra are all Chinese, but I suppose that certain department or production team from Universal Music should have made some research before launching the album.

It's a pity. I enjoyed the music per se but I despise overstatement or false publicity, and besides, I feel sorry for the person who was misled to prepare those words on the BBC website.


May said...

一直聽到了" ha ha ha ha..." 終於呼喚起金剛百字明的記憶了...

Wei said...


Intrested! said...

very nice post..actually, every Buddhist, especially Mahayana(because Theravada Buddhist at least not using sanskrit, but pali, even though its a bit similiar), can know easly what Sa DingDing sing is not Sanskrit, its the translation of Sanskrit to Tibetan, which uses some Sanskrit words such as Namo or Om, but the rest usually not..so its clear..but I think it will mislead at least non-Buddhist in the west or else where!!!

its also strange to spread in the media that she knows sanskrit!!! which is clearly not, based in her very bad pronunciation, even among Chinese speaker, listen for example to the sanskrit singed song by Taiwanese singer Huang Si Ting, its very much different!!!

Anonymous said...

Comparing her rendition of Alive to the original Mantra, it seems like it is a mispronounced version of the original Sanskrit text.

She pronounces every syllable of the mantra individually (e.g. sa, ma), although this isn't how Sanskrit works.