Sfiso Atomza’s experiments in being

Like the cover art, Atomza’s new EP presents multiple reflections of the artist, who celebrates South Africa’s musical archive and pushes the creative process beyond the usual limits.

Sfiso “Atomza” Buthelezi’s recently dropped three-track EP is a live recording engineered over three months during lockdown and released through Aural Sense Entertainment. 

The album art accompanying the EP is a dreamscape in three parts. The first image shows the Maasai Mara performing the adumu, a dance performed in a coming-of-age ceremony. But rather than the competitive jumping that characterises the dance, the warriors levitate through pink and blue clouds. At the centre of the image, a prism beams light upwards and out of the lava sea below. His name and the album title, Amulets + Tinfoil Hats, hover just beneath.

(Image supplied)

In another possible cover image, the clouds, sea and prism remain, but the palette has been reconfigured. What was a sunset, with hints of orange, pink, purple and blue, is now yellow and green. Atomza, photographed by Luthemdo Malatji, rests atop the prism holding a Yamaha Revstar guitar, a tinfoil hat on his knee. A silver moon hangs behind him with cloud-like rings circling it. The album title loops around Atomza.

(Image supplied)

Finally, in the third image, the waves have morphed into mountains. Twilight has returned and green flora peeks out from crevasses. The prism has turned into a mushroom upon which Atomza rests in lotus position, as a python – reminiscent of the staff of Asclepius – slithers up to him. Light spills from his sacral chakra while his tinfoil hat conducts lightning that corkscrews into his body. His name and the album title appear in a solid tan box.

(Image supplied)

Creative thermodynamics

“Music is my amulet. My protective spell. The thing I wrap around me to keep myself safe,” Atomza says. The tinfoil hat has a symbolic function, acting as a deterrent against negative influences and energies. It is also a reminder to be mindful of the power of information, how it is received and processed, as well as “how we see ourselves as a result of that information”.

Atomza explains that the idea was to produce images that captured an elevated sense of self. “This is … a commentary of me playing [a] self – as this normal guy who is interested in these foreign things.” 

Atomza imagines himself as both real and as a character he plays in a kind of movie. “We’re living in these uncertain times like we’re living in a movie – living in a dream. It’s that blur between reality and the real, [between] reality and ‘virtuality’. The dreamscape is a good way to put it – but it’s more than that: a vision space. A dream, you’d have to be sleeping for you to experience it. A vision would be your waking conscious,” he says.

Multiple cover art options are often created before an album is released. This is also the case with the music that doesn’t make an album’s final cut. But that work exists, as does the energy, time and resources invested in creating it. The first law of thermodynamics – which states that energy cannot be destroyed, only converted – could be applied here: work is always reimagined and reused.

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“The entire process was meant to be as creative as possible. We wanted to create as many artworks as possible. The same way that in the studio I knew I wanted to create these three songs as a first presentation of the new music.” 

Together with his band, Atomza recorded multiple songs. Three made it into the final version while several others are still in the draft stage. “We wanted to … be creative and play around with ideas. We had the time. We had the skills. We had the resources.”

Aural Sense Entertainment, the company that released the EP, was established by The Muffinz, a local award-winning band for which Atomza is composer, vocalist and guitarist. They released Have you Heard in 2012 and Do What You Love in 2015.

He explains: “I had the brilliant thought that we sign each other, sign ourselves as individual artists and try and capitalise on that. We are a band of individual musicians who decided to come together. So can we do individual projects without breaking up? That was the main question.”

The EP is being distributed worldwide through a partnership secured with the Orchard USA.

To inhabit one’s name

His name is a double-barrel fusion of the basic units of matter, atoms, and the name given to South Africa, Azania. “It boils down to the beginnings of life in South Africa. That’s what I’m trying to do with the frequency – I’m trying to give life, you know?” Atomza says, earnestly. 

To explain what he means by “frequency”, Atomza uses the example of a dog whistle, which vibrates at a rate outside the scope of normal human hearing. “What’s always fascinated me is what else can we not hear that’s outside our frequency range? Could the gods be speaking at a frequency you can only access under certain conditions, uya-understander?

“I’m trying to intentionally create music within the frequency that people hear that’s also well-intentioned. I hope I can bring in some spirit, or some god, or the unknown into it – of course, with a positive energy. Non-pretentious, just deliver myself as honestly as I can … No matter the varied ways I show up, these are all the reflections of who I am.”

In honour of local music

Produced by Dumisani Judah Ngwenya, who also plays piano on the album, Amulets + Tinfoil Hats is a tribute to South Africa’s live music scene. The band pulled from the sonic elements of gospel, jazz and African sounds. For Atomza, meeting and being able to work with talented musicians was fated, as was his journey into this music, which reignites almost-forgotten sounds from the past.

Lerato Lichaba, a prolific sessionist and the founder and guitarist behind the band Urban Village, has an extensive record library, ironically often sourced internationally with expensive shipping costs. Through this, Atomza discovered local music from the 1950s and 1960s.

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“I know that sound. I grew up on that sound, but it sort of faded away. It’s epitomised by uMahlathini and other acapella guys, Abafana Baseqhudeni – those kinds of guys – Mahotella Queens and their various incarnations. I felt that what I was doing with The Muffinz was a continuation of that, but I didn’t know it at the time… Reading books like Soweto Blues by Gwen Ansell, I started to realise that I am part of a tradition [of] instrumentalists [who] play a type of eclectic music as a result of a blending of cultures. It’s cosmopolitan.

“Even recent work done by companies like MELT 2000, omam’Busi Mhlongo with bands like Amazwide … These were guys involved in many projects, stuff that we are only now getting to understand because of social media, the people we meet, the conversations we have.”

Towards something new

Atomza uses his voice as a shapeshifting force, a precision tool. In the music, it is a saw slicing through truths to build something new, an electric drill pushing its point, sandpaper pumicing rough edges or a spirit level seeking balance. Atomza, however, remains aware of the line between the commercial side of the music he thinks people want to hear and the music he wants to make. 

He licensed the song Now That I’ve Learned (Something New), the first track on the EP, from friend and songwriter Reuben Thodlana. The liner notes refer to it as “township bop”. In the song, Ngwenya tickles piano keys with masterful fluency – he is both prim and playful. His notes tangle with Mzizi Innocent Mthintheki on guitar. The stealthy bass is slipped in as an exercise in Sphiwe Moloi’s dexterity, while Ntokozo Mdhluli’s drumsticks deliver an agitated staccato – both quiver and quake. Amid this mix, Atomza sings about the clarity of hindsight and meeting God while seeking self.

Shifting between ideas

The EP moves through seemingly disjoined ideas – shifting to a mbaqanga tribute, which he terms nu-mbaqanga. Ngizok’philela (Uzobona) started out as a house song, but Atomza realised he could not recognise himself in it – and so shifted the track’s underlying groove. With indigenous music facing erasure due to colonialism, globalisation and Western influences, this track is an intentional attempt at contributing to a conversation about its revival.

“The song is about lies – about the small little lies that turn into big lies. Especially in relationships,” he says. It is dedicated to his daughter, who he hopes will deal well with her coming adolescence and the possibility of being lied to. It is also dedicated to lovers – a plea to be kind to each other. Atomza holds himself accountable in the song, promising never to allow someone he loves to be hurt and reaffirming a commitment to their happiness and wellbeing, singing:

Ngeke ngize ng’phinde,
ng’vume kudlalwe ngawe …
Yebo ng’yakthanda, uzobona,
Sthandwa ng’zokphilela.”

Recorded during the country’s national lockdown, Get Money (Can’t Keep Fumbling … The Bag), the third track, is an exploration of a preoccupation with money and a comment on “hustle culture”. It is about how hustling means early morning rising and late night grafting, running on fumes and bending to breaking point in the name of making a living. 

Atomza isn’t exempt from this preoccupation, even though he recognises it as out of character for him: “Throughout this lockdown I thought about money more than I thought about spiritual things or godly things … The different ways to make it. Quick money, long-term money, money for my daughter, money for my wife. I thought about a lot of that and what I’ve built up and what I have. It was like an inventory. 

“At the end of it all, I realised that I’m what I need to focus on. Everything else will feed off of that – I just need to take care of me, and I’ll be able to take care of everything else and everyone else. That’s the great lesson.”

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