John Jacob’s acrobatic skills took him away from Africa at the young age of 15, but after touring the world he knew he wanted to return home and start his own circus.
“My goal was always to create an African show,” Jacob tells the Straight from Las Vegas, where he’s now based. “Travelling, I always saw different circuses from different parts of the world and there was never an African one.”
The result is Cirque Zuma Zuma, a company that draws talent from countries across the continent—and helps African artists support themselves. “I didn’t have the opportunity to go to bigger schools or graduate because there were 14 of us and only my father bringing in income,” Jacob says of his childhood in Kenya. “So my goal was to be able to help these performers work to send money home to their parents, to get food, or for their young brothers and sisters to go to school. Some of them can build a home or provide medical for their family. There’s a lot of things they do that I feel proud of.”
When locals see the company for the first time at the Vancouver International Children’s Festival, they’ll witness a rhythmic, high-energy African show that blends tradition with contemporary-circus skills. Dressed in elaborate costumes that draw on tribal culture and African art, the athletic performers never stop moving, tumbling, stacking up on one another, contorting, juggling objects on their feet, and leaping through the air to the sounds of live, traditional music. Jacob likes to describe it as a blend of Cirque du Soleil artistry and Harlem Globetrotters fun with deep African cultural roots.
On his home continent, acrobatic, tumbling, and limbo feats historically took place at celebrations and weddings. In the later 20th century, the continent’s more talented performers went to train in China; those experts then came back to teach their new skills to people like Jacob. “That’s how I started tumbling: in PE class,” says Jacob, who also grew up watching the Ringling Brothers circus on TV with his brothers at home in Mombasa.
One day, he and his buddies were practising their routine at a hotel, and the manager asked them to start performing for tourists. Word got out, international agents came calling, and the small crew was booked for shows from Japan to Italy, scoring a contract with Disney World by 1998. Jacob later toured America, but his original dream still obsessed him.
“I decided to go back to Kenya and recruit more talent,” explains Jacob, who had carefully saved his money from touring. “I went to Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia—I went to every country looking for performers.”
Cirque Zuma Zuma was born and started travelling its own continent as well as Europe and as far away as Australia. But its biggest break came in 2011, when it was tapped to audition for America’s Got Talent, and made it as far as the semifinals. The bookings have come steadily since then, and the company now has 120 acrobats, human-pyramid specialists, jugglers, limbo artists, dancers, and musicians that it sends to different shows around the globe.
Jacob says Cirque Zuma Zuma’s adrenaline-pumped act shows audiences a different side of Africa. “When people hear the word Africa—and I could be wrong, but most people I know and trust have told me this—they expect only dance. Africa is known just for dance and traditions, and people have never thought that Africans have other talents.
“Here in America or in Europe, people go to the park and play basketball or soccer for fun. Well, in Kenya, for fun we go out to the field and learn how to do flips and tumbling.” He adds with a laugh of his recruits: “They were capable of doing circus performing arts, but they were doing it for fun or for government parades, but not getting paid. When I went back, I said in Europe and the U.S. you can actually get paid for this.” Jacob’s African Acrobats International company has now opened circus schools in Kenya and Tanzania and is sending their graduates out across the planet.
The team he’s bringing here is a dozen-member troupe that comes from countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Togo, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Each performer has a compelling story, and dreams of rising out of poverty the way Jacob has.
“Yes, they try to set the same example as I do—they see what I did and it inspires them,” admits Jacob. His company may be based in glitzy Vegas these days, but you get the sense he never forgets where he started, in the fields and gymnasiums of Mombasa, tumbling for fun.
Cirque Zuma Zuma is at the Granville Island Stage from Monday (May 27) to June 2 as part of the Vancouver International Children's Festival.