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 Hubbardcompletes 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.
How Music has Impacted Papa Mali's Life
At what point in your life were you first turned onto music?
My very first memory of anything is of my mom and my aunt at my aunt's house here in New Orleans over on Audubon. I was in my crib. My mom thought I was asleep, but I was listening to them listen to records. So my very first memory of anything is of music. She had left the door cracked so she could hear me in case I was crying. I talked to her about this several years later. She set the scene for me, which is why I have so many details. She was just blown away that I remembered that. I was like two years old, maybe less. She said I wasn't speaking yet and she confirmed that the record that I did hear was Mr. Sandman, because that was what I thought it was (sings the melody of “Mr. Sandman.”). That was what I heard. She and my aunt were listening to it over and over because they had just bought it. This was about 1959.
I read that you believe that the path of music chose you, rather than you choosing the path of music. Could you tell us how old you were when you had that realization and how you came to that realization?
It came to me at a very young age. I don't even remember when I didn't think I was a musician. I thought I was a musician when other people laughed at me. “Oh, isn't he cute. He thinks he's a musician.” But I got my mom to buy me my first guitar when I was 5. We were at a store and I just begged her and begged her and begged her. It was just some sort of little toy guitar that had plastic strings on it, but I still took it home and tried to make music with it. And eventually, I did make music with it. Anybody that had a guitar, I would just beg them to let me play it. The very first song that I actually remember sounding like what I wanted it to sound like was Secret Agent Man by Johnny Rivers. I remember watching these kids that had a garage band in my neighborhood play that song. I kept watching them practice it, and I was watching the guitar player and he had a Fender Mustang with a racing stripe on it. He eventually let me play it, and showed me the little riff (hums the guitar line.) So that was the very first thing I learned to play. And I still love that kind of stuff. So that was it.
That path of music has led you on a journey to create music with some of your biggest influences, such as Bill Kreutzmann and George Porter Jr. in the band Seven Walkers. How does that help shape who you are today versus the young kid listening to the Meters and the Grateful Dead?
I guess being in a band with Bill and George kind of made me realize that somebody had finally come in and given me the keys to the clubhouse or something. Here's the key to the executive locker room. That's the way it felt. Because I had already played with a lot of people that I looked up to at that point, but it had been kind of one off. I played with Willie Nelson; I had played with B.B. King. I played with a whole bunch of people. I toured with B.B. King. I was the opening act, but he still would be gracious enough to bring me out on stage for the encore. So I learned a lot from guys like that. Willie and B.B. King, especially, because they were such heroes of mine, and they had both been doing it for such a long time. But, then, actually being on the road with Bill and George, that was a different level. Being on a tour, being on a series of one-nighters for almost three years. We made a record. We toured behind it. We did the whole thing. And that was at the front level. I think at that point I quit being the kid that was looking up to everybody and I started feeling like okay, this is it. Don't get me wrong. I still have heroes that I look up to. Right here in this city there are about 100 of them. But it did make me feel like I had reached a different level, and that made me also realize that I was the inspiration for a lot of younger musicians, too. I'm still in awe of a lot of people. I really am. I've been friends with Cyril Neville for almost 30 years. I never stopped being in awe of him, even though our kids had grown up together and I feel like we're family. But I'm still in awe of him. I think that's the way it's supposed to be really. I know Cyril is still in awe of his brothers. It's just the way it's supposed to be.
Can you talk about how you came to have the name Papa Mali?
It's funny because so many people seem to misunderstand that part of me and who I am. The funniest part of that, to me, is the drug reference, because that drug was not even in existence when I got the name, which was over 30 years ago. People of all sorts are coming up to me and going "Hey, man, you want to do some Molly?" I'm Papa Mali. I'm looking at them like what are you talking about? I had no idea what they were talking about. So this went on for a little while. At first I didn't think much of it, and then I started asking people, "What's Molly?" Am I that old? Am I that out of touch with the scene? What's going on?
Anyway, my name has nothing to do with the drug. What it does have to do with is my name is Malcolm, and I was playing Jamaican music for a long time. And the Jamaican musicians that I worked with and toured with all called me Mali, and it was their nickname for Malcolm. I guess in Jamaica there were a lot of people named Malcolm and a lot of the people call themselves Mali. So, anyway, at some point I was on tour with Burning Spear Band. They kept referring to me as Papa Mali. We did an interview on WWOZ here. Elisa Abofilia was the D.J. at WWOZ. This was back when it was still above Tipitina's back in '84. So me and the guys from Burning Spear Band-Winston Rodney, Nelson Miller, and a couple of the other guys all go up to the studio to do the interview. The only reason I was there is because I was in the band that was opening. The Killer Bees were the opening band on the whole tour.
So we're up there doing the interview. Elisa couldn't understand what they were saying because of the thick Patois. So they kept saying "Hey Mali. Hey Mali, tell them what we talk about" because I could translate. I had been hanging out in Jamaica and playing Jamaican music for a long time. So, finally, she's like "I know Malcolm, but where does this Mali come from?" It's Papa Mali. You know him. He’s a big papa. He has four children. And so I had four kids and they all thought that was really funny that I was so young and had that many children. I have more children now, and four grandchildren. At first it was kind of like a joke. They were calling me Papa, because I'm the young guy that has so many kids. Somehow it stuck. Somebody heard the interview, and wanted to do a story about the tour. Not particularly about me, but about the Burning Spear Band and the Killer Bees being the opening act. Well they kept mentioning Papa Mali in the story during the whole thing because I had to translate. The Associated Press picked up the story, and by the time we reached the West Coast, it was on the front page of the entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times. That's how it happened.
So when we got back from this one tour, my manager had picked up the story and just ran with it. It was in all of my press kits after that. And people started calling me that, and that's how I got it. So when the Killer Bees dissolved when my friend Michael died, I had already been performing solo shows that would be billed as Papa Mali and the Instigators. So it's like I couldn't get away from the name no matter how much I tried to distance myself or not call myself that. Everybody else called me that. It stuck. You can't pick your own nickname. You just can't.
Your music is laced with influence from so many different genres. Can you talk about some of those biggest influences on your music and how they helped you create the sound that has become uniquely yours?
Seeing the Meters when I was really young had a huge influence on me. Seeing the Mardi Gras Indians when I was real young. Hearing New Orleans Brass Bands. You know, before the Dirty Dozen. Really in my mind it was just something that was kind of like a museum piece in the history of New Orleans music. A lot of people, even today, don't realize that. But that's why I think that Kirk Joseph is such an important key ingredient to the evolution of New Orleans music, because he was the first guy I ever-heard playing funk on a sousaphone. And I saw some of The Dirty Dozen’s earliest gigs over at the Glass House. That's when I was like, “Whoa, this is a different thing.” They were covering songs by P Funk and bridging the thing that the Meters had already done. The Meters had taken that second-line groove and created the funk with it, but with electric instruments. The Dozen was the first band that I saw doing that with brass. So hearing that music when I was a kid, especially the Meters, really had an effect on me. I was 12-years old. I saw them on Mardi Gras day, and they were playing on the back of a flatbed truck. And there were Mardi Gras Indians at the gig that were not on the stage, but in front of the stage. It just blew my mind. I was a musician already at the time, but I was into Blues and Rock and some funk, but that really just made me think, “I really like funky music.” And I was lucky that we had this radio station in Shreveport because I grew up mostly in Shreveport. My grandparents lived in New Orleans, so I got to come down here for Mardi Gras and for summer. For summer vacation and some holidays and stuff like that. My cousin would take me around to hear a lot of good music, so I saw shows at The Warehouse back in the early '70s and street music in the '60s. But mostly my growing up was in Shreveport, and we had a radio station there called KOKA radio, and there was a DJ named Bird Brain Davis. Boy, that guy… He would come on at 12 o'clock and he would start the show with Night Train by James Brown, and he’d say "It's midnight in the city, and that means it's time for the DJ Bird Brain Show with your host DJ Bird Brain playing the best of the blues that you can use from midnight until four.” I was just 8 years old when I discovered this. I had my little transistor radio with a little plastic earplug plugged in one ear under the covers in my bedroom with a flashlight reading Mad Magazine or Marvel Comics. Oh, man, I had a hunger for that kind of edgy blues and soul music; but the Meters were the first time I really had seen it going down live. They were the first band I ever saw. So that was a big deal, and then a couple of years later I saw Dr. John and that was a big deal for me, too, because it made me realize that maybe I could do this if I'll try real hard. At that time, I just didn't think that it would be impossible for a white guy to do that. When I saw Dr. John do it, I was like, "Oh shit, he can do it." Those were big influences on me. And the Stones were always a big influence on me. They led me to the blues and they were always good about acknowledging their influences. That would later create a road map for me to go back and look for stuff. And then I met this guy named John Campbell. Everybody called him Johnny Slim in Shreveport, but he was a real-deal Blues guy. He lived that sort of lifestyle and he played that way and was really authentic. He took me under his wing when I was 14 and started showing me how to play bottleneck guitar. He taught me how to tune it a certain way for bottleneck. He turned me on to a lot of great records. So I have to name him as a big influence, too. And I really felt that by the time I started gigging when I was 16 or 17 years old. By that time, I really felt like I had an advantage because of that. Because of seeing the Meters, seeing Dr. John, having Johnny Slim Campbell loan me those records and show me those little guitar tricks. It was things that the other kids weren't doing. The other guitar players weren't doing that. They might know a couple of B.B. King licks or something, but I'd be throwing down something a little heavier like some Son House or Charlie Patton.
How did you become so deeply immersed in the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian music and culture?
If it hadn't been for Cyril Neville, I wouldn’t know Monk Boudreaux. And if hadn't been for Monk, I wouldn't be accepted in the Mardi Gras Indian world the way that I am. Monk basically opened the doors for me to do that in a way that I never dreamed possible really. It's a huge honor and I don't take it lightly at all. And there's been times when Monk has actually advised me on things not to do as well, which I am really grateful for because I'm learning as I go. That's a deep culture and there's a lot to learn and they don't share the secrets with everybody. I'm very honored every time I get asked to play with Monk or with any of the Mardi Gras Indians. I feel very privileged. I had met Monk and I played with him with Cyril. Anders and I were doing a festival up in Little Rock, Arkansas and I think Cyril got sick. Anders was supposed to be heading up this band with Monk the next night at this festival, but Anders had to split because of something. Either Sarah or one of the kids got sick. I can't remember, but he had to go. And so they were about to cancel it and Monk said, “Let Papa do it.” So I basically took the reins and from that point on, Monk and I hit it off big time. I remember being kind of nervous about it and Monk just looking over at me on the first song saying, "Oh, we rolling it now!" That was like 15 years ago and we've done a lot of shit since then. He was on my second album and I played on a lot of his last album. He opened all the doors for me being involved in the Mardi Gras Indian culture. Like I say, I'm still learning.
If you could single out one greatest moment in your musical career, what would it be?
That's a tough one, but I think one that's going to last longer than me or my memories is that I got to record a song with Willie Nelson that I wrote with Robert Hunter. So that's kind of a lasting thing that anybody can look at and say, “This guy made a little mark. He made a little tiny mark somewhere. He got to record something with a couple of people that will never be forgotten.” But there's moments, musically, that I can't recapture. They just happened at that time. You were at one of the greatest gigs that I played that ended up being Willie T’s last gig in New Orleans. The fact that I got to play at Willie T’s last gig in New Orleans, that's a huge deal.
Can you talk about how music has helped you get through some tough times in your life?
I feel so strongly connected to music that it feels like music is part of my life force. It's what's kept me alive through some really tough things. It's kept me from falling apart when everything else seemed like it was falling apart. I honestly believe that it's helped to keep me alive. There's about a million lessons I had to learn to get to where I am right now. I'm really happy to be here, and I think music is a big part of why I'm supposed to be here. There are a lot of people in my life too. My wife, my kids, my friends, and without them, I wouldn't be here either. But without music, I don't think I would have met my wife. We met on the Riverboat President during Jazz Fest at a Neville Brothers show. So how big is music in my life? It's really big. You know, a huge thing. Rita Marley was the headliner. The Neville Brothers were opening for Rita Marley on Riverboat President just probably less than a mile from here. We celebrate our anniversary at Jazz Fest every year. This Jazz Fest we will have been together for 34 years. So my wife and my kids are the most important thing, but music is what brought us together.