Papa Mali Comes Full Circle
One of the great joys of Bonnaroo is the Thursday night shows. The perfect warmup to a weekend of insanity, over the past few years these shows have been a kind of coming out party for lot of acts to the jamband scene. Most of these acts are fairly unknown when they hit the stage, but by the time the night is over, new stars are born.
In 2004 Thursday’s set by Papa Mali, a joyful explosion of soulful, funky grooves and bluesy, screaming slide guitar, introduced him to the scene in a big way. Even after sets by bigger names like the Dead, Bonnaroovians were still buzzing about Mali’s tasty gumbo of Texas blues and New Orleans funk. Since then, the singer/guitarist has been riding that buzz and working his magic in clubs across the country.
Wherever they go, the trio has been leaving a trail of blown minds and soothed souls, and the legend of Papa Mali himself continues to grow. Very few live acts on the scene today can generate the kind of power that the PM trio does on a nightly basis.
The first thing that struck me that night at Bonnaroo was the soulfulness in Papa Mali’s voice and guitar playing. Very few musicians on the scene today are better at communicating directly from their spirit to yours. You get the impression that Mali was born to play this music, and you’d probably be right.
However, for most of his adult life Mali played in a successful reggae band. That gig paid the bills until a tragedy close to home inspired him to get back in touch with his roots. Now that he has reconnected with the source of his mojo, the music world had better get hip, or get out of the way.
Papa Mali was born Malcolm Welbourne in Shreveport, Louisiana, and his current band plays the kind of blues/funk music that you would expect from a Louisiana artist. However, he has traveled a long and winding path with many detours since then, only to arrive back where he began, playing the music of his childhood.
“I had the distinct advantage of soaking up a lot of great music in New Orleans,” Mali says. Seeing The Meters during Mardi Gras made an impression, and he also raves about the primal power of the Mardi Gras Indians. In recent years, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Wild Magnolias has become a friend and collaborator, and he will appear on Mali’s next studio album.
Another formative musical experience was the time young Malcolm had tickets to see Jimi Hendrix at the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium. However, he was grounded and missed the show after he was busted for shoplifting firecrackers on the 4th of July. His friends went to the show, and afterwards they went to Hendrix’s hotel room and lay on the ground outside his window, their bodies forming a peace sign. Jimi was so impressed that he invited them up to the room, where he carved up a big watermelon and distributed it to the revelers.
“I would have been eating watermelon with Hendrix if I hadn’t stolen those firecrackers,” he says now, and there is still a tinge of regret in his voice.
Another early influence was the Allman Brothers, particularly Duane. “It was Duane Allman that made me want to play slide,” says Mali, “That’s the truth.”
As a young man he saw the Brothers shortly after Duane passed away in 1972, with opening act Dr. John the Night Tripper. The swamp voodoo vibe of his current band owes a lot to the good Doctor, and they even play some of his songs. Also, the ABB played an indirect role in introducing Mali to John Campbell, a local blues legend who would become his teacher and mentor. His current sound melds those two influences into a seamless stew of funky goodness.
“John Campbell taught me to play bottleneck when I was 13, 14. I had gone to see him play at a party my brother threw,” Papa says, setting the scene. “John came by my house, probably to get paid (laughs) for the party, and I was upstairs practicing to Fillmore East, trying to learn Stormy Monday.’ He sticks his head in the bedroom and said That sounds pretty good, but you need to listen to the guys they listen to.’”
Soon Malcolm was introduced to Elmore James, Charlie Patton, and all the other greats of the blues canon. He expresses deep gratitude to Campbell for taking him under his wing and schooling him in the ways of the blues. By the time he was 17, he was playing professionally, and music has been his life ever since.
ROOTS, ROCK, REGGAE
For most of his adult life Mali was part of the Killer Bees, one of the first American bands to play the legendary Reggae Sunsplash festival in Jamaica. They toured with reggae legend Burning Spear, among others, and became one of the most popular reggae bands in the US. Mali’s soulful guitar playing was a crucial part of their sound.
“Caribbean music and culture is so similar to New Orleans music and culture, and that’s what drew me to reggae,” says Mali today.
Of course, there are unique challenges to being a white guy from Louisiana trying to make it in the reggae world. Ironically, within a scene that often denounces racism, Mali struggled against prejudice. Once when someone was giving Papa a hard time about being a white boy playing reggae music, Burning Spear himself intervened and proclaimed “Excuse me, this man is from New Orleans, and we were listening to New Orleans music before reggae was even invented!”
Even though he enjoyed the respect of his fellow reggae musicians, over time Mali grew weary of playing music that was devoted to “repatriation and African pride and other things that I couldn’t really participate in. I never meant for the band to last 15, 20 years, you know? It just lasted that long because it was so successful.”
Mali sounds disappointed by recent changes in the reggae scene, and that may have also played a part in his change of path. “At that time it seemed like it was talking about unity and bringing people together, and love, and peace through music. Then the dancehall thing started happening, and now it’s like gangsta rap,” he says disdainfully.
Having decided to return to his roots, Papa made a clean break. Even though the occasional Killer Bees fan would show up at his shows expecting reggae songs, he was militant about not doing so.
“I’ve made a conscious decision to get away from reggae,” he explains, “because I was so identified with it that it was getting in the way of doing what I want to do now.”
What he wants to do now is play a swampy combination of blues and funk that could only come from New Orleans, with a little Texas thrown in for good measure. Mali currently calls Austin home, and you can hear the influence of Texas blues masters like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Elmore James in his playing.
In the year 2000, Papa Mali announced his new direction with the excellent album Thunder Chicken. Drawn from a deep sense of place, songs like “Cottonfields and Bayous” were deeply personal tales of the world that Mali grew up in, and the world that he was returning to after years in a sort of musical exile.
One song from that disc that lit the crowd up at Bonnaroo last year was the anthemic “Keep Happy,” a churning piece of funk-rock that elicited praise from one of the founding fathers of New Orleans funk.
“Yeah, Zigaboo Modeliste (drummer for the Meters) heard that song and contacted me to let me know how much he liked it,” says Mali with pride.
The whole album is chock full of Crescent City flavor, from the off-kilter parade beat and amusing lyrics of “If I Ever Get Right” to an eerie and sinister version of “Walk on Gilded Splinters.” The good-time party vibe of “Let the Bon Temps Roule” could start a dead man to dancing the second line.
One of the treasures of the album is “South Austin Lullaby,” a beautiful ballad that pays homage to his second home in Texas. The emotion in this tune is so strong and the guitar playing is delicate and beautiful.
Mali is currently recording his second album for Swampland Records with producer Dan Prothero, featuring guests from Cyril Neville to Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. If the strong new material live audiences have been seeing lately is any indication, this could be the record that breaks Papa Mali in a big way.
BB King has Lucille. Stevie Ray Vaughan had his signature “SRV” Strat. In much the same way, Papa Mali has a special bond with his iridescent 1958 Harmony, which he has nicknamed BlueDoo. From a distance it looks like a smaller Les Paul, but on closer inspection the Harmony turns out to be a strange hybrid that is perfectly suited for slide guitar.
“It’s like a lap steel,” says Mali. “It’s on a shorter scale, the action is really high, the pickup is really hot, and it’s made out of one piece of wood. It has that infinite sustain to it.”
That it does. BlueDoo wails and screams under Mali’s practiced hands, creating strange overtones and harmonics. When he’s really working it, BlueDoo seems to be channeling alien frequencies from the planet Neptune, totally different sounds than what you usually hear coming out of a guitar. Part of the reason is that he frets behind the slide, a practice often associated with another Louisiana slide master, Sonny Landreth.
“I’d never really checked out Sonny Landreth, but I had heard that his style was similar to mine. When I saw him the first time, I was worried that it was going to look like I was copying him,” Mali confides. “The way I do it is so much rawer, it’s totally different, so I was like Whew!’”
Another slide player that Mali expresses admiration for is Derek Trucks, with whom he recently toured.
“Jammin’ with Derek was really cool, his vibe is so relaxed it makes everyone feel at ease instantly,” says Mali with great respect. “Derek himself is so kind, unassuming and enlightened…and I stand by my assessment that there is not a better living slide guitarist anywhere…at least that I have heard. His taste, tone and technique (the 3 Ts ) are superb!”
It may be hard to believe when you see how possessed he can be onstage, but once Papa Mali is offstage, he becomes Malcolm Welbourne, family man. He was originally given his nickname by Burning Spear’s band back in the reggae days because of his 6 children, and his family still comes first for him.
That same respect for family and roots is what brought him back to the music of his childhood, despite a long and successful career playing reggae. A recent family crisis forced him to put a lot of things into perspective, and he decided that if he was going to play music for a living, he wanted to play this music.
“This is the music I grew up with,” he says calmly and confidently, “and I’ll probably be playing it for the rest of my life.”
With the recent tragedy in New Orleans, people are more aware than ever before that the music and culture of the Crescent City are unique and precious. Papa Mali is living proof of that, and to hear him wailing away on a song like “Walk On Gilded Splinters” is to witness a kind of invocation of the spirit of New Orleans, a voodoo ritual that summons up the essence of that enchanted piece of swamp. He recently hosted a benefit for New Orleans musicians who were victims of Katrina during the Austin City Limits festival, and the Big Easy is never far from his mind.
The most interesting journeys are never easy, and usually don’t take the most direct path. After a long and winding road, Papa Mali has come full circle back to his roots, and the rest of us are lucky to have him back where he belongs.