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Interview with Music Artist Dadawa

Aired January 19, 2011 - 06:30:00   ET


ZAIN VERJEE, CNN HOST: With her unique voice and distinctive stage presence, Dadawa has become the force on the world music scene. Not only drawing a claim as an artist, but also helping to bring ethnic Asian music to the international stage.

Plucked from obscurity after winning a Chinese singing contest in 1990, she quickly matured from pop star to independent artist. Committed to reinventing music for the modern age. She catapulted into the public arena five years later with this hit:


And became China's first ever contemporary artist to have an album released internationally. Dadawa's use of Tibetan theme, thought, courted controversy and angered people in both China and Tibet. But she was applauded by others and surprised many when she came back just four years ago with a distinctly Chinese sound in her album "Seven Days".

Her performances now reflect her ongoing troubles around Asia as she discovers musical traditions from inner Mongolia to Hunan to Tibet. Dadawa's search for inspiration also resulted in this documentary in 2006. And this feature made in 2010 as part of her post as a United Nations goodwill ambassador to China.

This week on Talk Asia, we're with the pioneer of modern Chinese music, Dadawa, as she takes to the stage in Hong Kong.

Dadawa, welcome to Talk Asia. It's good to have you with us today.


VERJEE: Now, others in China see you as a trail blazing indie musician. How do you see yourself on China's music scene?

DADAWA: My music is a little bit different from normal, you know, Chinese music. You can hear from the market and on the music stage. And, since the 1990s, myself with my working team, we create kind of new music which the people hardly can categorize my music into any kind of catalogue. It's not exactly the Wo music or the new age. Rather, they say this is Dadawa's music.

VERJEE: So what's behind the name that you chose for yourself, then: Dadawa?

DADAWA: In Tibet, Dawa means moon -- D - A - W - A?


DADAWA: Dawa means moon. And I also interesting in the Dadaism -- surrealism. So I put two concepts together to make a new name for myself that's called Dadawa.

VERJEE: Right.

DADAWA: I think, you know, the music is similar to this name. It should be easy to communicate with the people.

VERJEE: Your mentor and the man who is described really as discovering you, I suppose, was He Xuntian. How would you categorize his influence on you?

DADAWA: I think what's a great influence from Mr. He Xuntian, because by the time I met him, I was like 20 -- early 20s. So, I know I don't want exactly to be a kind of pop musician. That's not the things I really want to sing. But I started as a pop star.

VERJEE: Did you?

DADAWA: Yes. I won the national prize.

VERJEE: That's right, you did.

DADAWA: I now have a very popular song called "A Story of the Crow". Which has become very popular, you know, pop song in China. But, at that time, as I won the prize, I started to tour with a pop star. But I start asking myself "is this the life you really want to be? Is this the songs you really want to sing, you know, again and again?" Of course, definitely not. So I left the stage and then I went to Xingjang to start music. And I met He Xuntian. He really starts a new door for me.

VERJEE: So, you were born Zhu Zheqin in Guangzhou.


VERJEE: Were you a particularly theatrical child?

DADAWA: I've always had my own, like, idea. Like, you know, imagination -- lots and lots of things. I imagined one day I would be like a traveler. I could travel all over the world.

VERJEE: Not a musician?

DADAWA: No. No, actually, I've loved music since I was very little. One times a week, they would play, like, the movie on the grass. And I was the one with a little chair and watching the movie the whole time. And then, after watching the movie, I can sing, like, the opera. The whole play, yes.

VERJEE: Coming up: courting controversy.


VERJEE: The reaction to your album in 1995, "Sister Drum", was absolutely enormous. What was that time like for you?

DADAWA: We did have many problems because, at that time, you know, we said we're going to be doing something related with Tibetan culture. At that time it wasn't like now, you know. The ancient minority culture was very far away from the regular people, even in China at that time. So people feel -- very strange idea.

We finished the album and then, you know, many of the foreign recording companies came to us and want to discuss, you know, wanting to publish. This became, like, wow, suddenly.

VERJEE: "Sister Drum" won the equivalent in Asia of a Grammy Award, yet right after it, you then had to recall the album and re-edit it. Did you have any idea of the impact that it would have?

DADAWA: I was confident with the music itself. But because when I was singing and when we were producing, I was so deeply moved. So, I didn't feel surprised that people would have that impact. But I haven't expecting, you know, the recording company or the people would love and buying the music.

VERJEE: What does your family and your friends think about the idea that you were going, you know, talk about something like Tibet, which is so sensitive in China?

DADAWA: Actually, the people in that time, they don't have an idea about, you know, this will become very sensitive issue. Actually, including myself. I always remind myself and the people that I'm not doing Tibetan music. This is music from Dada. But I am inspired from the region. This is not Tibetan music. Tibetan music have their own, you know, style. They have their own shape.

VERJEE: Yes, absolutely. You know, it's well-publicized that you've said this isn't political. I'm not doing this to be political. But, did it really surprise you that much when, you know, both the Chinese side and also the Tibetan side, you know -- both camps came out and said "hey, you know, we're not happy".

DADAWA: Yes. That's really, really surprising me. Yes. For a certain time, I was so miserable for that. And I always hoping in the future for some other young generation, like the artists, they don't have to face also that kind of problem.

VERJEE: The album was released in 56 countries simultaneously. And that was the first time in 45 years that a Chinese album had been launched globally. What did you think about the international reception of "Sister Drum"?

DADAWA: I think, maybe, "Sister Drum" brought something fresh and also something not like before they were here -- they were heard. This is with the modern and the, you know, contemporary ways. It's more from the Chinese people now. It's not from the past. So, I think, maybe this is the point for the western audience.

VERJEE: In 2006, you recorded the album "Seven Days" and, in that one, Chinese melodies were much more prevalent than the Tibetan style that everybody had known you for. Why did you decide to take a different tack?

DADAWA: Before it was too complicated an issue for me. Because I am Chinese. I cannot change my identity. And, of course, I don't want to, you know, stick on this very complicated issue forever. And the other reason is I'm Chinese. Actually, I grew up from the very traditional Chinese impact (ph) family. So I wanted to do something with my own background. I tried to finish, you know, something about the very simple idea of life.


VERJEE: The United Nations has named you a Goodwill Ambassador for China. What does that job entail?

DADAWA: First of all, I think, as a good ambassador, I should pass the message to the people, especially for my working area to protect the diverse culture from China. And it's to protect the existing minority culture. Many in two areas, which is music and handicraft. So, after I accepted the appointment, I created a project with UNDP called "Show the World".

And, in this project, we have, like created my music. Like, music tour. Which is, we travel to the place. We brought 10 people. We recording the music from the local people. And we took pictures and we tried to record a true face of the local music scene.

VERJEE: You've also taken on the cause of cultural preservation, I suppose. Is that kind of an uphill battle when you're trying to do it in a place like China, for example, where, you know, everybody's so focused on progress at the expense of everything else?

DADAWA: Actually, that's always feel like that, you know. It's always have a difficult part for what you're going to do. But my thinking is, you know, we had to do something personally, especially for the minority culture. And this is nothing like, you know, earthquake. The people will do it right away. So, that's why I thought I should do something to, you know, connect with other people. We tried to do some -- we starting in a little point and then we make more people to understand.

VERJEE: Coming up: we get exclusive back stage access to DADAWA's hit performance in Hong Kong.


DADAWA: My music should have, like, a very complete expression which is including the video -- the visual and the audio.

This is really behind what -- I'm going to the stage. I'm always, like, you know, antsy. Like, just the small things, sometimes. For me, I would prefer the normal. I really put myself inside.

Sometimes I just think I melt in the music. That's the moment I really, really enjoy. I think, you know, why I exist is because of this moment.

VERJEE: Your stage show with all the, you know, multimedia aspects and, you know, all the high tech whiz-bangery is something that you're actually really well-known for. People know that when they go to a Dadawa show, they're going to see this, you know, visual extravaganza. Tell me about the work that you have to put in to doing a stage show.

DADAWA: Because, for me, a performance of the music is not just the music. Especially my music. If you listen to my music, you always have a kind of very special visual idea. It comes with the music. It's not like just evaporation, right? So, when I try to move my music on to the stage, I try to bring the whole thing to my audience. Which is -- it's not the kind of music you listen to in a bar.

So that's why, when I started to have the idea to produce the show, I always have the whole idea, which is including the audio and the video part. So, and this time I invite some of the modern Chinese artists and we also have the musicians from the region like from Yunnan, Guizhou, and Mongolia, and Xingjang.

This thing -- we put this whole thing together and we hope that the audience, when they are in the concert hall -- in the theater -- they will have the whole idea about the music, the tradition, and what we are now being.

VERJEE: The art of the visual is obviously very important to you. I mean, you've even been involved in television as well. You did a documentary -- "Sound Pilgrimages" with the Oscar-winning director Ross Kaufman. And you had to travel extensively for that, right? Through parts of South Asia? Why did you take on that project?

DADAWA: Actually, I was beginning to travel in the South Asia from 2005. Actually, the documentary is because of my traveling and then we took the documentary. It's not because we wanted to do a documentary and then I traveled there.



DADAWA: When I finished "Seven Days" and my publisher wanted to promote the album, but they didn't know how to promote because I'm not the artist trying the entertainment shows. And finally, he said, well, you love to travel and you were in India, you were in Himalayan (ph). That's good, so I give you some money and then you go and you shooting your traveling and take it back. So, that's the whole story.

And, actually, I met Ross Kaufman in Cashmere in 2005. And after a few months, I heard he got the Oscar prize. I lend a documentary from a video shop and I'm watching it -- it was so great. And then I sent an email to him. I said I'm going to India, would you like to take a documentary for me? And then he replied -- he said "yes".



VERJEE: So you've traveled thousands and thousands of miles searching for music and different songs and different styles, you know, through some very remote and little-traveled places of Asia. Tell me about, you know, some of the things that have really struck you about the places that you've been and the people that you've met.

DADAWA: In Tibet, during the early 90s, I was so, so moved into, you know, the place. And, in spite of me, to create some music after the visit. And, during this year, I was traveling also in India and Nepal. So, always so in love with the place. I like the simple people. I love their unique, you know, style of music and the lifestyle.

VERJEE: You know, you've had such an interesting life so far. You've been to some incredible places, met amazing people, taken on a side of music that nobody had ever tried before in China. Throughout everything that you've done, what have you learned most about yourself?

DADAWA: I think that's always a new discovery from your journey -- your own journey. Like, before -- five years before, if the UN come to me to say, wow, would you like to be a goodwill ambassador? I may say no. At that time, I was just this individual artist. I have my own role. I want to create something which is from my own mind.

But, after my journey -- like my life journey -- I met people. I travel. Suddenly, I started to realize, you know, I want to share my life with other people, and that's a very big change to me. So, I think, you know, life will teach you something. I want to share a little bit to the world.

VERJEE: Dadawa, it's been absolutely lovely meeting you today and enlightening, too. Thank you very much.

DADAWA: Thank you.