On Tip Toe is an in-depth documentary on the high-profile South African vocal/movement group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, ideal for both the uninitiated and the fans. Filled with fascinating interviews and rife with moving music, the film outlines in a lucid and poetic manner the history of these high-profile South African cultural ambassadors. Director Eric Simonson presents a sensitive and sensible portrait by balancing important information on the cultural context from which the group arose with the sheer aesthetic beauty of Black Mambazo’s art. The film parallels the group’s unique vocal harmonies: rich with layers of meaning, yet straight to the heart.
Two versions of the film are included on the DVD: the original, 40-minute Academy Award®-nominated cut and an extended version that runs just shy of an hour. Both cover the same content, but the longer version takes a more academic approach by specifically chaptering each segment of the group’s history, while the shorter blends themes into each other to create a quicker flow. However, both have the same desired effect by balancing the perspectives of Black Mambazo members, particularly leader Joseph Shabalala’s, and of specialists on South African music and culture. Each point of fact or incident is articulated clearly without being belabored, making for an accessible narrative. For example, certain points in the group’s history, such as their roots in weekly vocal competitions, and their collaboration with Paul Simon on his Graceland album and subsequent mass exposure, are especially highlighted to illustrate the impact of these incidents on the group’s mindset and music. However, the tragic death of Joseph’s brother and band mate is referenced, but not dwelled upon beyond it obviously being a point of bereavement. Simonson treats his subject with the utmost respect by recognizing that Black Mambazo is both a unique fusion of styles and one man’s vision; he allows these facts to breathe which makes the film naturally compelling.
On Tip Toe does not aspire to say more than what is necessary. Rather, it follows a principle declared by Shabalala: “Not go higher than mind of people. Go straight to their heart.” Both the group leader himself and the director emphasize the importance of cultural preservation in Black Mambazo’s work, however their preference for exhibiting artistic works over engaging in critical analysis keeps the film grounded. When questioned about the political nature of Black Mambazo, Shabalala quickly recognizes the struggles of his ancestors and even those in his lifetime in apartheid, but he notes that he is “a musician, not a politician.” Likewise, the film never fails to approach these subjects, but always brings the focus back to Black Mambazo’s music. While most of the music moments in the film are excerpted, the DVD also includes uncut footage of Black Mambazo performing at a local vocal competition, alongside several other competing groups. The footage is invaluable for its raw quality, capturing the group in a lively and seemingly improvised performance as Shabalala acts as both leader and maestro, guiding the group through different movements and vocal parts, building the song before the audience’s eyes. Equally fascinating are the other featured groups for they all exhibit similar Zulu reference points, but wholly unique styles and interpretations. Each group treats their culture with the utmost respect, while finding individual forms of expression, much like how Black Mambazo is a balance between the visions of one and the many.
While On Tip Toe is not Black Mambazo’s first time on DVD (Shanachie’s Live at Royal Albert Hall makes an excellent companion piece, as it features the concert that is only excerpted in On Tip Toe), it is the first to document the culture and history that Black Mambazo strives to preserve. The unassuming character of the film makes for an inspiring look at one of South Africa’s most highly recognized and emotionally stirring cultural ambassadors.