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

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas