The Zuzu African Acrobats have performed in more than 25 countries since the group was founded 15 years ago in Mombasa, Kenya.
Now they’ll take their blend of circus-style acrobatics and high-energy beats to the Madison Center for the Arts at 7 p.m. Friday, May 7, and Saturday, May 8. They have been featured on “America’s Got Talent,” “The Late Show with David Letterman” and three Super Bowls.
“We usually have a big company — up to 20 artists — but now, because of what is happening today with the pandemic and coronavirus, we only have six artists who are solo artists, but we also go together and do group shows,” says Amiri Koba, one of the six artists, over a Zoom call.
The current group hails from Tanzania and has been performing together for three years under the combined name Tanzanite African Acrobats/Zuzu African Acrobats so people “know we are from Tanzania,” Koba says.
“(Our show) has changed a lot because we usually get to perform to a live audience,” says Koba, a native Swahili speaker. “We used to have up to 3,000 to 4,000 in the audience. The vibes and the feeling are different.
“As we say, at the end of the day, it’s not just a show. It’s about the experience and letting the audience participate. We want them to feel like they are with us. We don’t want them to feel like they are just the audience and they are (supposed to) just sit there like you would to watch a movie. We want our audience to be involved and participate and experience where we are coming from — experience the beauty, the color of who we are.”
The show embodies the Bantu Culture of East Africa and includes teaching the audience Swahili terms. During the past year, the group has completed a limited amount of in-person performances and a slew of Zoom performances out of its Cleveland studio.
“We were lucky enough to be able to keep sharing with the people through the internet,” Koba says. “We want to keep sharing and feel the energy between us and the audience … (but) it’s not a connection that you can feel through the screens.”
The name Zuzu is a Swahili word that means someone who is quiet but smart and intelligent, Koba says.
“In East Africa, people are very shy. Even though they know a lot of things, it is hard for them to explain to someone when they ask them to do so,” Koba adds.
As a matter of fact, Zuzu African Acrobats’ first group was several shy, talented local artists who performed on international stages.
“If we get a big audience of 4,000 to 5,000 people there will be a little tension, but as soon as we hit the stage we are happy and enjoying it and feel like this is what we deserve at this moment,” Koba says.
“(The audiences) are to expect a lot, and the show is going to be amazing. We have all these solo acts: hand balance, chair artist, contortionist, unicycle, dishes and pyramid. It’s a lot, but it’s totally amazing.”
Koba admits that he loves his job, but it’s hard to be away from home — especially during the holidays.
“Because we have been traveling in Europe and all over the world, I think the worst thing no matter where we are, the challenging things that we have is missing our family,” Koba says. “We have been here (in Ohio) for over two years, and we haven’t gone back to visit.
“Being away from your family — your mom, your dad, your sister, your brother — for such a long time and you still don’t know when you will have a chance to go visit,” he says. “At some point, we feel like, ‘I am supposed to be home with my family,’ especially during Christmas times, New Year’s, those major holidays where people gather with their parents, but instead we gather here and cook.”
The six men in the group make sure to celebrate holidays and birthdays together while on the go and “communicate with family through Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook, but it’s not the same,” according to Koba.
When the group is not performing, it constantly practices within its Cleveland studio to maintain its acrobatic abilities.
“This is like a soccer player or mathematics — you have to do it every day,” Koba says. “I can be very talented in flipping and do all balancing stuff, but if I don’t exercise for over two weeks, I won’t be good.
“With what we do, we need to trust each other, and trust comes from practice, because we are doing dangerous things like when we do a pyramid. In order to trust me, we have to practice a lot, otherwise it’s hard.”
Koba is looking forward to coming to Phoenix.
“We can’t wait to face those audiences and let them experience it,” he says. “I believe they will take away a special treat of Africa.”
Zuzu African Acrobats
When: 7 p.m. Friday, May 7, and Saturday, May 8
Where: Madison Center for the Arts, 5601 N. 16th Street, Phoenix