“We wanted to form something that could be part of the global village,” says Qkumba Zoo’s lead singer/lyricist Levannah. “And, at the same time, have it be tied to its birthplace.”
Indeed, Qkumba Zoo straddle as many contradictions as their native South Africa. They have one foot planted in the fertile delta of their continent’s ancient tribal rhythms and the other in the western world’s most progressive, cutting-edge yet melodically shimmering alterna-pop. They are attuned to the mysticism and magic of their homeland as the birthplace of civilazation, yet have their sights firmly set on a multi-media future in post-punk, post-apartheid South Africa, just as the old and new toil away side-by-side in present-day Johannesburg.
Already a platinum, chart-topping group in their own country, Qkumba Zoo is comprised of, in addition to Levannah, studio whiz/multi-instrumentalist/composer Owl and dancer/sculptor Tziki. And while they have only been together a little under two years, their debut Arista album, “Wake Up & Dream,” shows a band that crosses boundaries, reflecting the triumph over apartheid which has broken down social and cultural barriers in South Africa and brought what Owl calls “a release of pent up positivity.”
“Combining the positive and negative is very important to us,” explains the cat-like Tziki, whose lithe, tattooed and pierced body, along with the sculptures she creates, serve as the on-stage physical embodiment of the band’s music. “We want to create a synergy and wholeness along the lines of yin-yang. The balance is vital, just as the defeat of apartheid has unleashed the power of those opposites in South Africa, like a coiled spring.”
Qkumba Zoo’s music is a similar give-and-take, a pulsating pop-rock that combines native African song forms like juju and high life with an intense synth-beat that recalls such British new wavers as New Order, Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys. Levannah’s impassioned, heartfelt vocals evoke divas from Donna Summer to Annie Lennox and Deborah Harry, as the first single/video, “The Child (Inside),” fuses tribal rhythms to a haunting, flute-like siren song and a melody that remains fixed in your brain like a mantra.
“We try to use idioms that other people have developed, put our own essence in there and take it someplace new,” explains Owl, who picked up the acoustic guitar in high school, inspired by songwriters like Neil Young and Bob Dylan. “Our music is filtered through two prisms. One is good songwriting and the other is music that represents the culture of Africa.”
Levannah and Owl met at a conference while attending university in Johannesburg and Durbin, respectively.
“We hated each other at first,” recalls Owl, a long, multi-colored strand hanging from his scraggly goatee, wearing a traditional African cap. “We had an argument about vegetarianism.”
“I thought he was an asshole and he thought I was a bitch,” laughs Levannah, who admits to being inspired by everyone from Suzanne Vega, Sinead O’Connor, Seal and Tori Amos to Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath. “The music actually got us together. I started hearing the songs he was composing and he started hearing my voice. Eventually, we got to be friends.”
They formed a folk-rock group named Ocean Road while in Johannesburg, but they didn’t set their sights very far.
“Americans expect their rock stars to be American,” explains Owl. “South Africans expect their rock stars to be American.”
The 1994 elections which ushered out the apartheid era and brought in Nelson Mandela as President had a big influence on their decision to form Qkumba Zoo, which reflected South Africa’s self-pride as a country emerging “from darkness into light.” The name represents the tension between the group’s belief in a vegan lifestyle and their primitive worship of flesh, and came from carving the shapes of animals out of a cucumber one day when they were bored.
Songs like the anti-apartheid epic “Weeping” (actually their cover of a song by fellow South African band Bright Blue which they updated to reflect subsequent events) partake of the emotional catharsis unleashed in South Africa after Mandela was elected President. That celebration can also be heard in the winsome “Happy Earthday” and the affecting “Cloud Eyes” as the shiny technoscapes and chiming guitars are layered over a sultry beat.
Levannah, resplendent in blue lipstick and a shaved head save for a pointed blue patch of hair in the middle of a scalp festooned with glittering stars, half moons and rotating eyeballs, is the soul in the machine, the matriarchal family ruler. She clings to her beliefs in ancient disciplines like astrology, Tarot cards and numerology, recognizing the unbroken chain which links them to the modern mysteries of the Internet. Her sensuous croon, which often bypasses English to partake of her own self-dubbed “Universal” esperanto, provides the outer skin of humanity to the lush rhythmic skeleton of “Flesh & Blood,” the ebullience to the overdubbed girl group harmonies of “Big” and the transcendence to the child-like innocence of “Time Of Wonder.”
“Your self is your primary work of art,” says Levannah, explaining the band’s striking appearance is merely the modern-day equivalent of traditional tribal finery. “Living close to the earth involves a love of color, of form, of beauty. The modern world has gotten very scared of individuality and flamboyance.”
Qkumba Zoo sees it as their job to bring that ancient sense of brightened, ecstatic awareness – as well as good clean fun – to a post-rave, post-trance society.
“We’re doing this in order to expand ourselves, to grown, to become more aware, more conscious of our spirituality, our physicalness and our emotional lives,” adds Owl. “We want to make sure everything we do is genuine. Music to us is constantly looking for new sources and inspiration, to be aware of other people. To realize we’re just individuals but we’re also part of a mass of humanity. We are South Africans who have grown up in a specific culture in a specific time. And despite all the efforts of our parents and the rest of society to make us turn out like that, we turned out like this.”
The changes that their country has gone through has made them very aware of a sense of destiny. Qkumba Zoo truly believe there is no limit to where their music can take them, and who would dare disagree? As they put it in “Time Of Wonder”: “In the time of miracles / Anything can happen.”
“We want to be international and local,” says Levannah. “It’s not just about music for us. We’re approaching the end of the century. We have a mission. Coming from South Africa, we’ve had training in the fact the impossible is possible. If rock bands can come from Australia and Ireland, why not South Africa? You can take extreme darkness and bring in extreme light. And that just may give us more hope, faith and confidence than a lot of other people might have. Why don’t we just bring the rainforests back? Why don’t we sort out our ecology? Yes, it’s hard work. But hard work can be delicious.”
Especially when it results in as tasty a dish as “Wake Up & Dream.”