Zanias Says Musical Rhythm Is What Separates Us From Apes

Photo by Catherine Yule
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Berlin-based electronic artist Zoè Zanias, known simply as Zanias, believes music is what separates us from other animals. She spent much of her childhood trekking through the rainforest with her mother, a tropical biologist, and falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle. She says exotic bird songs, though beautiful, lack a key element: rhythm. 

"Even chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas, who are so closely related to us, don't get together in these big groups and jostle around to the beat of a specific rhythm. They don't dance," she says. "This is a really uniquely human trait. I feel like it definitely has a lot to do with social signaling. By sharing a rhythm, we're sharing space and time together. It's a way of bonding us and creating a sense of togetherness."

She therefore maintains that musical artists perform an essential service to humanity: They express the various states of the human condition in a way that people can share. "During my performances," she says, "I'm really trying to show people that they're not alone."

Zanias is set to rock Gramps next Saturday, June 23. She performs solo, floating her ethereal voice over brooding industrial beats. Most of her music is created through programming and sequencing, though she sings and plays synthesizers onstage. Her shows are highly emotive, drawing on her experiences with microdosing LSD and using other psychedelic drugs. 

"I want people to walk away having experienced something that altered their minds," she says. "I'm very inspired by shamanic practices and ayahuasca ceremonies. Growing up in Borneo, I experienced the tribal ceremonies of the Dayak people. The state of mind that a shaman gets into, this sense of pulling something into the room and sharing it with the audience, being a vessel: That's the sort of mindset I try to have while I'm singing."

She was born in Australia and raised in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Her first instrument was her own voice. As a child, she used to sing along to the Beatles, Madonna, and the Beach Boys, and as a teenager, she graduated to the '80s goth sound thanks to Siouxsie & the Banshees and the Cure. She's been obsessed with the dark side of music ever since.

In addition to her love of music and nature, she's fascinated by ancient civilizations and holds a degree in archaeology.

"It's been a strange journey, for sure," she says. "I was in London studying primatology and human evolution for a master's degree, and I was enjoying it, but at the same time, I was just starting to play lots of gigs and people were responding so positively to my music. Having had this dream to sing since I was so young, I just couldn't draw myself away from it. I couldn't make the sensible decision and continue studying. The opportunity arose to move to Berlin and play music full-time, and I took it."

Now she's set to release her debut full-length. True to her childhood spent in tropical rainforests, the record features sampled sounds from the natural world, including bird calls and the cries of gibbons, a species of small ape common in Malaysia.

"They sing to each other in the jungle, and it's absolutely beautiful," Zanias says. "It's the sound of my childhood. Finally capturing that was amazing."

Zanias. 10 p.m. Saturday, June 23, Gramps, 176 NW 24th St., Miami; 305-699-2669; gramps.com. Tickets cost $10.

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