South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo is the rare cultural force that transcends the specifics of their own art to become something far more important. For decades during apartheid they kept the traditional music of their ancestors alive and, with some help from some international collaborators, started to personalize the soul of oppressed black South Africans long before the end of white rule.
That the music itself is not obviously political actually makes it sweeter. The soft, hopeful sounds of the all-male chorus touch the soul as much as the mind. The documentary Ladysmith Black Mambazo: On Tip Toe (which is an expanded version of an Oscar nominated short) doesn't contain a comprehensive history of the region or of the music's origins (it's not even an hour long) but it does a nice job of illuminating the way this fascinating music is created and some of the influences that help shape it.
One particularly interesting bit of information featured in the film is the origin of the lilting, high-pitched tone of much of this music. Apparently it grew out of the loneliness of the thousands of male workers who flocked to South Africa's cities to work in low-wage jobs and live in horrible crowded conditions. This singing style came out of a desperate desire to hear something soft and feminine.
In fact, the entire tone of the singers featured is so soft and subtle that sometimes you find yourself leaning forward to hear their hushed voices. The "tip toe" of the title refers to a Zulu name for the sounds, obviously meant to invoke the quiet, unconfrontational style.
If any one man embodies this style it's Joseph Shabalala, the founder and leader of Mambazo. Shabalala is as much an ambassador from his culture as anyone. His work introducing Mambazo to the world has really put a face to his nation and at one point the documentary compares him to Nelson Mandela for having made the plight of South Africa a global issue in his own way.
Some of the material that will connect with viewers the most concerns Shabalala and Mambazo's collaboration with Paul Simon on his "Graceland" album and tour. There was controversy at the time over whether Simon was crossing the line, breaking sanctions against a nation with gross human rights violations or honoring talented musicians and helping them teach the world about their struggle. It seemed like a shade of gray but really "Graceland" was the opposite of musicians like Queen who went to white-only resorts in South Africa like the notorious Sun City to play and collect big paychecks. The music Mambazo and Simon made together should have been an inspiration and at the end of the day most people saw it that way. And it catapulted Shabalala onto the global stage, someplace he's been ever since.
Another topic covered is the way Mambazo and other South African singing groups internalize global influences. They are shown taking bits of blues, gospel, country, rock, vaudeville and other musical styles and blending them into their own sound. It's really interesting once you know what to listen for, to pick out a Jimmie Rodgers yodel or Chuck Berry duckwalk. Interestingly, Shabalala warns against incorporating too much outside influence so as not to lose the distinctive voice of the music, but it seems like the soul of this music has always been inextricably tied to absorbing anything and everything, a trait that probably came out of the severe sense of isolation.
This need for companionship and community also formed another tradition featured in the film. Really unusual singing competitions are a weekend attraction in South Africa and one such competition, which takes place in a YMCA, is featured in the film. The marathon competitions start at 3am and include fashion shows and all sorts of other entertainments, stretching well into the next day. This sequence really gives a chance to hear how other singing groups put their own stamp on the Mambazo sound. There is a quality they all share but each group has its own impassioned style. This is a great addition to the film.
The video (which is non-anamorphic widescreen) looks ok, although it does display noticeable compression artifacts with some frequency. The colors are vibrant in some scenes but the quality of a lot of the footage is not the best. Much of the concert footage was apparently shot on consumer grade video cameras and this creates an indistinct image. Not a spectacular visual presentation.
The soundtrack is available in Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1. It sounded to me like the surrounds in the 5.1 might have been mimicking the fronts, but even if they weren't it was close. Still, both sound tracks are decent. The music sounds very nice and dynamic although the voices, while clear, as soft. (This is definitely due in part to the way those interviewed speak.) No subtitles are included which is a shame since, while the English of the members of Mambazo is excellent, their accents can be very thick at times.
There are a few interesting extra features. One that's cool to have but doesn't really add much is the original shorter edit of the film that was nominated for the Oscar. It's around 25 minutes shorter and doesn't seem to contain any material missing from the longer cut. Still, it's not a bad addition.
There is a 10 minute interview with the director that actually covers some interesting material and also includes a good bit of additional footage from the contests. His recollection of visiting the competition for the first time - as a judge, no less - is pretty fascinating.
There is also a half-hour montage of additional performances from the competition. This is really the best extra for anyone who enjoys the music excerpted in the film.
There are also bios for the filmmakers and trailers for other Docurama releases.
On Tip Toe is a simple documentary without any unnecessary flourishes and gimmicks. It really gives Shabalala and his peers the chance to show off their talents and the spirit that stirs them. It does a nice job of explaining where this culture comes from and what helps it continue forward. Combining so many disparate influences, the singers of Mambazo really have crafted a sound that is both familiar and unique at the same time.