In harmony with the Durban legends: When Ladysmith Black Mambazo met Dan Croll

Singer-songwriter Dan Croll travelled to South Africa for a magical, emotional recording session with his heroes, Ladysmith Black Mambazo 

Never meet your heroes, they say, yet the singer who has hymned the homely pleasures of polyester carpets is as happy as a hippo in mud watching his inspirations at work.

“Wow,” he gasps, “I don’t know what to say...” He shakes his head in wonder as Ladysmith Black Mambazo weave their spine-tingling, timeless magic. Liverpool-based solo artist Dan Croll has travelled to Durban, South Africa, to collaborate with the choir – which, over the years, has worked with the biggest names in pop, among them Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton and, of course, Paul Simon, on the 1986 album Graceland, the project that made a name for them globally.

Croll himself, mind, is a long way from that league. On the back of two singles released last year, he has signed to Decca subsidiary Deram. In common with a growing number of contemporary self-starters, he brought with him an almost complete album, though when his record company suggested adding a choir, it chimed with his then unspoken ambition to work with Ladysmith. Simon was on the same label – and through that connection, a way was opened to the KwaZulu-Natal ensemble, and the wheels were set in motion in under a couple of months.

That the US artist’s controversial album (sanctions were then in place against apartheid South Africa) was such a formative influence is down to Croll’s mother, a Simon fan, playing Graceland at home in Stoke-on-Trent. Then, as he developed his own tastes, the budding musician explored Ladysmith’s own recordings. “When you’re that young, hearing such a low voice that is so smooth really captures you,” Croll remembers during a short break between sessions. “[They were] hard to follow lyrically, but later I found that the songs grabbed me chord-wise.”

He widened his interest in African sounds, first with fellow students at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, before he developed a friendship with the London-based group The Very Best. Throughout that time, though, the choir remained an influence – and Croll is keen to celebrate that. “It’s me paying my respect to these artists, showing my appreciation. I want to keep [their sound] alive and keep people going back to these heroes of mine. It’s incredibly important to recognise your past influences – and why wouldn’t you work with them? It’s a dream come true.”

So last month, Croll pitched up in Durban with three numbers in mind for Ladysmith to add their own vocals to as bonus tracks on his forthcoming debut album. On the current single, “Home”, the artist revels in the quotidian delights of returning to his parents’ house – they have carpets rather than the bare floors he is now used to. “Maway” is a playful song about a blossoming romance that is also an undisguised tribute to the choir (the title, too, a play on “my way”, is a nod to their accent); and Croll has worked on his own version of his favourite number of theirs, “Hello My Baby”.

All of Ladysmith’s contributions have to be accomplished in two days at a downtown studio. The sessions happen just after Nelson Mandela’s death. Thankfully, Ladysmith are the model of calm professionalism. The eight-piece vocal group has changed since it first came to fame, and now includes four sons of main man Joseph Shabalala, a quiet, authoritative figure we soon come to know as “baba” – “father” in the group’s native Zulu. They remain committed to the project, none more so than Shabalala, who constantly sings quietly to himself, showing no signs of pain from a recent back operation.

Performing with a relative unknown is just as invigorating as playing with established stars, he seems to say. “I love to work with many different people. I can learn from somebody and they can learn from me. I’m a composer, so when I sing, I want people to take it and do it in their way. If there’s no money, it’s OK.” Ladysmith’s position as ambassadors for the Rainbow Nation is clearly important to him – as is the younger members’ status as role models for black youth.

Day one begins with “Home”, and with the lanky songwriter explaining the sense of displacement that underpins his lyrics. The group work on the chorus, quickly grasping the words and soon adding their own parts to the stripped-back arrangement; the bass singers sound especially impressive in this clean, modern space. At first they struggle with Croll’s jazzy chords, but, with Joseph, add their own intro in Zulu, providing an early “magic moment”. “They’ve just written it,” says an amazed Croll. “Joseph says it’s all ‘please come home, we want you home, you belong back home’.”

Later that day, “Maway” is the cause of some amusement as the South Africans recognise their influence on Croll’s tune, to be sung a capella. Joseph remembers the romantic songs that  he used to sing – “and then the girls would  come after me,” he laughs. Finding their groove, the choir are soon freestyling, the older members adding appreciative vocal clicks and exclamations. Within half an hour of first hearing the Staffordshire lad play the number, they are on to a first take, ahead of its completion  on Monday.

The second day of recording goes even more smoothly. Without seeming to warm up, the choir immediately hits its stride. Nor are they fazed by Croll’s upbeat treatment of “Hello My Baby”, the solo artist saving until last the moment he was most nervous about. Lip smacks and enthusiastic “heys” soon leap from the monitors, much to his relief. Afterwards, Croll is on a contemplative high. “I’m going to find it very tough to explain to people how amazing it is to feel that,” he muses. “I link it to how I felt when I first heard a lion roar right in front of me. You hear it all the time as a kid in movies and cartoons, but it wasn’t until I heard one in Berlin Zoo that I truly realised... it hits something within you.”

Dan Croll's debut album, Sweet Disarray, is released through Deram Records/Universal Music on 10 March