Papa Mali (born Malcolm Helm Welbourne in Vicksburg, Mississippi, May 6,1957) is a New Orleans based, American singer-songwriter, guitarist and producer.
He has been a touring musician and recording artist for decades. Yet, he is probably best known as the front man for 7 Walkers, a band formed in 2009 that includes three musical icons: Grateful Dead founding member and drummer Bill Kreutzmann, The Meters’ founding bassist, George Porter Jr. and lyricist Robert Hunter, who penned most of the Grateful Dead’s classic catalog (along with the late Jerry Garcia) and now co-writes much of 7 Walkers material with Welbourne. Multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and Willie Nelson collaborator, Matt Hubbard completes the line up. Their self-titled debut was released to critical acclaim in November of 2010. For the all latest 7 Walkers news and tour dates click here: www.7walkers.com
Papa Mali is also known for his own live performances and recorded output, most notably his two albums for Fog City Records (2000′s Thunder Chicken and 2007′s Do Your Thing), both produced by Dan Prothero and the latter featuring some of New Orleans’ most legendary musicians.
His work as a producer includes 7 Walkers (Response, 2010), The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster (Blue Corn, 2007) and records by Lavelle White, Omar and the Howlers, Wendy Colonna, The Greyhounds and others.
When not on tour with 7 Walkers, Papa Mali can usually be found at home in New Orleans, where he regularly performs with his own band, Double Uptown Shotgun – often at his favorite neighborhood watering hole, The Maple Leaf Bar or at nearby Tipitina’s.
The Early Years
1960 through 1974 were spent growing up in Shreveport, which Papa describes as a “cold war, Bible-belt frontier where modern suburbs lined the snake-infested bayous, and gleaming shopping centers rose out of cotton fields.” Meanwhile, just across the river lay Bossier City and the Barksdale Air Force Base, which, according to Welbourne, “provided two things respectively. (1) the Bossier Strip – a ‘sin city’ mile of strip clubs, psychedelic discoteques, and rough and tumble joints designed to relieve servicemen of their paychecks and (2) the knowledge that, in the event that the Russians attacked, we would all be vaporized due to our close proximity to Barksdale’s nuclear missile silos. It would be years before I realized just how many great things there were about growing up in Shreveport that made me who I am. But as a kid, I always felt like I belonged somewhere else.”
Fortunately, that ‘somewhere else’ was only half a day’s car or train ride away. Summer vacation and holidays, including Mardi Gras (where as a twelve-year old he saw his future friend and band mate, George Porter Jr. perform with The Meters) were spent at his maternal grandparents’ home in New Orleans. Early exposure to Elvis, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, New Orleans R&B, Beach Boys, Beatles and especially The Rolling Stones led to guitars and records – a lifelong obsession. By the late sixties and early seventies this obsession included girls, clothes, cars, sneaking into bars and smoking pot. By now, he was studying the music of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Sly Stone, Dr. John, The Band, The Allman Bros, The Grateful Dead and soon thereafter, the raw blues, roots and funky soul music of the very artists that his heroes had learned it from. It was around this time that his older brother introduced him to John Campbell (aka Johnny Slim), a Shreveport singer and guitarist who knew a thing or two about roots music and especially the Mississippi Delta blues. A few records borrowed here, a few slide guitar lessons there and a whole lot of stories, mythology and folklore later and young Malcolm was on his way. By the time he turned seventeen, he hit the road – a kid with a guitar case and the belief that rock and roll would save his soul. Somewhere along the way, it did.
Living the Dream
Welbourne traveled extensively for the next several years, sometimes hitchhiking, sometimes riding in beat-up cars or tour vans. He learned the meaning of paying endless dues by hanging out in New Orleans nightclubs to learn his craft, doing thankless stints in Florida juke joints, playing (and sometimes sleeping) on the streets in Tennessee and getting roughed up in biker bars in rural Arkansas. During these lean years he’d take any gig he could find, living in skid row hotels and ramshackle band houses while forming long-forgotten bands or backing up two-bit soul, blues and country singers whose glory days were already behind them. Girlfriends became wives and soon there were adorable, hungry little mouths to feed. Partly by necessity and partly by determination, Malcolm developed a gritty style of guitar playing and singing and a solid reputation that would lead him to bigger stages and better paying work.
In 1977 the young musician took a trip to Jamaica that would change his life forever. There, he heard a hungry new sound, rising up from the shanty towns and echoing through the hills. When he returned to the states, he was on a mission – to start a reggae band. The Killer Bees soon formed and by 1982 were making quite a name for themselves, touring nationally and drawing crowds. While on a 1985 tour as the opening act for Burning Spear, the older, Jamaican musicians began calling Malcolm ‘Mali’, for short. One afternoon, they were mightily amused to visit Welbourne’s house and witness his kids playing in the yard. On this day, still only in his twenties but already twice-married and a father of four, Malcolm Welbourne was jokingly dubbed ‘Papa Mali’ by the veteran reggae stars, who all had nicknames themselves (and numerous wives and children of their own). A few days later during an interview, a reporter heard one of the Burning Spear band members referring to the youthful guitarist as ‘Papa Mali’ and lo and behold, it made the story. The article was then picked up by the Associated Press and by the time the tour reached California, it was on the front page of The L.A.Times! By the time Malcolm returned home, his manager had sent copies to publicists and talent buyers all over the country. The word was out and the nickname stuck; Papa Mali had officially arrived upon the scene. Now, nearly three decades later, he is father to seven children and grandfather to three. What started as an inside joke now fits like a glove.
Back to the Roots
The Killer Bees would go on to win numerous awards, garner national and international acclaim for their live shows and recordings and be one of the first American bands ever invited to the Reggae Sunsplash festival in Montego Bay, Jamaica. But as the kid from Caddo Parish became more and more accepted by reggae musicians and followers, something was missing. His own cultural identity had all but disappeared from his musical persona. He had been living in Austin, Texas for what seemed like eons and his best friend, Killer Bees vocalist Michel E. Johnson was dying of kidney failure, bringing an end to the band they had co-founded years before. The time was right for Papa to reclaim his rightful heritage – the swampy sound of his Louisiana home.
Papa Mali and the Instigators, Thunder Chicken (Fog City) produced by Dan Prothero and released in January 2000, was more than a homecoming – it was at once a return to form and a declaration of artistic self-realization. Lee Froelich’s review for Playboy magazine called it “the best swamp music since Tony Joe White” (Playboy also named it one of it’s ‘Top Ten Albums to Make Love By’), while noted music critic Thom Jurek on Allmusic.com raved:
“Thunder Chicken is one of the few truly wild and unruly records to come from the rock & roll tradition in the 21st century.”
And so once again, Papa Mali hit the road, which had always been his home. Only now, it was as a rediscovered and more importantly, re-imagined version of what he’d always been. Gone was the reggae – in it’s place a psychedelic take on the funky, hypnotic grooves of Louisiana – yet the dreadlocks and the trippy, dub influence remained. People who were old enough to remember (or hip enough to know) began making comparisons to Dr. John’s Night Tripper period. Some called it ‘voodoo space blues’ or ‘bayou soul’. Everybody called it funky. And so it came to be that Papa found a new audience in the burgeoning phenomenon known as the jamband circuit, performing at huge outdoor festivals like Bonnaroo, Wakarusa, High Sierra, Jamcruise, 10,000 Lakes, Gathering of the Vibes, Summercamp, Oregon Country Fair, Wanee, Bear Creek and many more.
Papa Mali, Do Your Thing (Fog City) was recorded in pre-Katrina New Orleans (though not released until 2007). Once again, this sophomore effort was produced by ‘the true King of Raw’, Dan Prothero and featured Crescent City heavy hitters like Monk Boudreaux, Kirk Joseph and Henry Butler. And once again, it got great reviews. Jambase’s Dennis Cook heralded it as “one of the first great records of 2007 – and quite possibly one for the ages”. Gambit Weekly’s Allison Fensterstock noted that “Papa Mali is the kind of local character that would be genuinely iconic anywhere else. Here in his adopted New Orleans, though, where we historically curate a stellar permanent collection of freaks, oddities and twisted brilliance, he simply fits right in.”
If there was ever any doubt as to where Papa Mali’s musical soul resided, this album settled it once and for all.
Over the next few years Papa Mali covered countless air and highway miles, playing coast-to-coast and sometimes playing as many as 200+ concerts a year. During this time he shared the stage with many of his musical heroes, including national tours with BB King, guitarist Derek Trucks and a European tour with his longtime friend Cyril Neville.
And then at a festival in Oregon, he met Bill Kreutzmann and almost instantly they became close friends. And though he didn’t realize it yet, all the roads that he’d traveled to get to that point in his journey – all the gigs, the miles, the hardships and the joy – had led him here for a reason. The universe was smiling on Papa Mali and the best was yet to come.
Papa knows how far he has come since those early days, and he understands it wasn’t an easy path that he chose (though, he contends that the path chose him). Still, he considers himself blessed. Or as he puts it himself:
“I am constantly amazed that I get to do what I do. I am astounded that my lifelong dream – to write and play music and travel the globe and make recordings that I can be proud of – has become a reality. I get to work with musicians that I respect, and in some cases, musicians that I have looked up to for many years – and I am able to make a living at it. I realize that I am very fortunate in this regard and I know there are many deserving musicians who never attain these things. Why me? I have no idea, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I am not humbled and thankful and inspired to keep going.”