We’re walking through Zoo Lake park and people can’t stop staring at us. Well, people can’t stop staring at Zonke. The slender beauty is casually dressed in skinny jeans, a white vest and black leather jacket – her turquoise high heels the only obvious nod to her playful personality. But it’s Zonke Dikana’s eyes that draw you in: Those same wide, piercing eyes that stare out from her latest album cover. They make you feel like you’re the only person in the world who matters.
It was always music
Zonke says she didn’t really have a choice about making a life and a living from music – it’s all she ever knew. Born in KwaZakhele, Port Elizabeth, in 1979, she grew up in a house ruled by music. Her father Vuyisile ‘Viva’ Dikana was a drummer for a group called Black Slave and the Flamingo. ‘I thought everyone’s dad played drums at 6 am!’ she chuckles. ‘It was so normal for us.’ On a serious note, she confides: ‘My dad was my hero, so I naturally saw myself following in his footsteps.’
One of five daughters, Zonke was just six when she and her two elder sisters would perform for family and friends as Viva’s Trio. Taken back by the memory, she breaks into soulful song right in the middle of Zoo Lake: ‘Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you have to do is call, and I’ll be there … you’ve got a friend.’
She tells me about the first song she remembers her sister Lulu writing, and about their little house in the PE township. ‘I was around nine and Lulu was 11. I was amazed by the fact that she just wrote a song. She brought it into being from nothing – the lyrics, the melody, everything.’ Zonke knew then that music was her life force, but it would take a while before she developed the confidence to turn it into a career.
Big city lights
Without the money to fund a degree in music, Zonke moved to Joburg where her father and stepmom (Anneline Malebo, singer for the band Joy of ‘Paradise Road’ fame) helped her get bit jobs as a backing artist. ‘I was a small-town girl,’ she admits. ‘I thought that Joburg would be all glitz and glamour, so living in a tiny studio apartment in Braamfontein took a little getting used to.’
Ironically, her first big break was in Germany. In 2003, Joburg sound engineer Leon Erasmus recommended her for a cultural-exchange project with German jazz-pop producer York. York loved her, and within weeks she was fronting a group called Culture Clan, touring Europe to popular acclaim. Over the next few years Zonke made her name on major international labels, recording both group albums and her solo debut album Soulitary (2006).
However, Zonke still longed for home. ‘I also needed to get back to my musical roots.’ In 2007, she returned to Mzansi. ‘It was very strange being virtually unknown in my home country,’ she reveals. The Afro-European, electro-pop sound that had made her famous overseas hadn’t yet taken root in South Africa, so even as the critics noted her talent, the masses had yet to discover her. ‘For example, in 2004, I won the Metro FM award for Best R & B song, and no one applauded,’ she recollects. ‘No one knew who I was!’
The new South African sound
After dabbling in house beats at Kalawa Jazzmee Records (a very successful dabble, which earned her four SAMA nominations and gifted us the 2007 album Life, Love ‘n Music, with the SA sensation ‘Ekhaya’ celebrating her joy to be ‘at home’), Zonke decided to focus on her own voice – literally and figuratively. In 2011, she self-produced the album Ina Ethe, meaning ‘give and take’. ‘Music is a give-and-take situation,’ she explains as we stroll past people rowing boats out on the lake. ‘Music is futile if there’s no one to receive it. You give music, and in return you get love and appreciation.’
The listening public showed their appreciation, alright. Ina Ethe went triple platinum. The live version album and accompanying DVD also went platinum and earned Zonke two more SAMAs. Her touring schedule skyrocketed. Zonke was on the road to SA superstardom.
Triumph over tragedy
Then tragedy struck. While her songs were becoming national hits, she took a devastating blow in her personal life. In December 2014, her sister Lulu was admitted to hospital with respiratory complications. Unable to breathe, she was rushed to the emergency room – and never returned. ‘It was such a shock. I suddenly felt like I was in the middle of the ocean, alone.’
Zonke had previously lost loved ones, including her father, stepmother and older sister Busi, but Lulu’s death hit her harder than anything else. ‘Lulu was my pillar,’ she confides. ‘As a sister and as a musician, she was my sounding board. We were always there for each other.’ After a hiatus that allowed her to process Lulu’s passing, Zonke returned to music with her late-2015 album Work of Heart. The first song she recorded upon re-entering the studio was a tribute to Lulu, entitled ‘Meet Me in My Dreams’, which formed the centrepiece of the powerful album. Work of Heart, too, went platinum.
Back at it
We watch the ducks on the lake and it strikes me how they are never still for a moment – they are constantly moving. Music is like that, I posit. Good musicians will continuously move forward, exploring new styles and themes as they apply to their own lives. Zonke agrees, pointing to her latest album released this June, entitled L.O.V.E. The acronym stands for Living Out Various Emotions, and explores relationships and emotions in all its forms. ‘It’s much more upbeat, not only in tempo but in message too,’ she notes. ‘It says exactly where I am right now, and I choose to celebrate it.’
Zonke composed, arranged, produced and sang every track on the album. She even recorded her own backing tracks, including harmonies. ‘I’m such a control-freak,’ she giggles. ‘I’m a perfectionist. I know what I want, and I’ll do whatever I can to express it.’ She naturally spends a lot of her time in recording studios. ‘If it were up to me, I would live in the studio,’ she confesses. And she’s not that far off – she’s installing a studio in her home in Sandton, where she lives with her daughter Milani (16) and son Noah (6).
Zonke will also be launching her own record label, Leely Music, named after her daughter. In addition to producing her own music, Zonke is scouting for local talent to develop. ‘I want to be able to help and share with other artists,’ she declares. Meanwhile, we can all kick back, relax and tune into her latest offering. Expect big things from this album, and from the talented artist behind it. Thank you, Zonke, for sharing the L.O.V.E.