Sister Drum

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It's hard to be rough on an album with such a marvelous beauty to it. Nonetheless, the extremely attractive Sister Drum, which draws its inspiration from Tibetan music and settings, is on the hand a fantastic showcase for Dadawa herself and, in its own way, a travel document for the region that ignores its turbulent situation. A Chinese singer of some repute, Dadawa was approached by producer/songwriter He Xuntian to be the voice for his musical project exploring Tibetan work with an eye towards modern composition and recording. While it's a bit of a push, in ways Sister Drum is the Chinese equivalent of Enya's Watermark, an exquisite and atmospheric record drawing its roots from a non-mainstream cultural source. He's sense of arrangements is quite fine, mixing traditional Tibetan instrumentation with synths, electric guitars and technology while exercising a clear restraint throughout -- music and mood is suggested rather than fully spelled out. Indeed, there's a careful drama throughout Sister Drum that's lovely to hear and appreciate. Dadawa's vocals, sometimes full-bodied, sometimes hushed, meanwhile, suit the lonesome, meditative mood of the music, whether kept in the distance in the mix to increase the sense of soaring vistas or sitting squarely in the middle of the understated performances. When she's backed by a full choir on songs like "Sky Burial" and the soaring orchestral concluding piece "The Turning Scripture," the result is truly breathtaking. Evocative and wonderful as this album is, however, one can't help but feel that there's something troubling about it -- or more accurately, about the fact that the Chinese government's record on Tibet continues to be horrific while allowing this intentionally apolitical work to be created and marketed. The liner notes carefully emphasize questions of spirituality and native Tibetan beauty -- and it would be churlish to doubt Dadawa's sincerity regarding her lyrical sources and inspirations. Yet more than most albums, Sister Drum is one to enjoy while wondering about what hasn't been included as much as what has been. On its own a lovely triumph, in context something questionable still lingers.

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