The rich history of music that made Papa Mali

What do you get when you blend blues, psychedelic rock, funk and the many other sounds of New Orleans, bring it all to a boil, and let it simmer? You get the music of Papa Mali.

The singer-songwriter has been a recording artist and touring musician for decades, but he’s probably best known as the leader of the critically acclaimed 7 Walkers since 2009. That stacked lineup includes three musical icons: bassist George Porter Jr. of the Meters, and drummer Bill Kreutzmann and lyricist Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead. When he’s not on tour with the group, you can find him at home in New Orleans, where regularly performs (under normal circumstances, at least) with his own band, Double Uptown Shotgun.

Papa Mali’s debut album Thunder Chicken was called “one of the few truly wild and unruly records to come from the rock ‘n’ roll tradition in the 21st century.” He released his most recent album, Music is Love, in 2015.

Papa Mali joined us in the Gumbo Kitchen to tell us more about his life and career in music.

You were born in Mississippi, grew up in Shreveport, La. How did you end up in New Orleans?

My mother is from New Orleans. Both of my siblings are considerably older and my father travelled a lot, so in the ’60s and ’70s, my mother and I would take the train to New Orleans and stay with my grandparents, when my father was on the road. Besides regular weekend trips, we were always there for holidays, Mardi Gras and summer vacation. As a result, I witnessed some of the city’s greatest musicians in their prime, including The Meters in 1969, Dr. John in the early ’70s and James Booker in the late ’70s. I fell in love with New Orleans at a tender age, memories of my grandmother’s cooking, street parades, the way the air feels, the sounds, the sights and the smells — primal things that formed the core of my being, my heart and soul. I’ve lived in other cities and travelled the world, but it’s the only place I’ve ever felt was “home.”

What sort of music was playing around the house growing up?

My mother had a good collection of records: Ray Charles, Chet Atkins, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Price, Jim Reeves, Sinatra, Roy Orbison, the Beatles, Elvis, many more. My older sister and her friends played lots of early rock-‘n’-roll 45s, but it was my older brother who turned me on to the grittier stuff — Dylan, Stones, James Brown, Byrds, Kinks, Otis Redding, Yardbirds, Animals — and later on, blues and jazz records. I was also exposed to street music, traditional jazz, brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians. By the time I was five years old, I was starting to play guitar and had my own little record player. As a young child, I liked harmony groups a lot — Everly Brothers, Beach Boys, Supremes, Temptations, Ronettes, Miracles. And New Orleans artists like Fats Domino, Al Hirt, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe and Pete Fountain were omnipresent, at home and on the radio, as well as Spanish-style guitar records, which my father really liked. And speaking of radio, it’s impossible to overstate how important my little transistor radio was in my musical development. Top 40 was really good in the ’60s, and once I had discovered KOKA, the local Black soul station, I was on my way. I would stay up way past my bedtime, reading comic books and Mad magazine by flashlight, under my covers, listening to KOKA’s midnight blues program, The B.B. Birdbrain Show. This is where I first heard records by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters. A few years later, when I first heard records by Dr. John and Tony Joe White, I realized that maybe there was a place for a white boy like me who loved Black music.

Your given name is Malcolm Welbourne. Where does Papa Mali come from?

It is a nickname I received while on tour with Jamaican reggae greats Burning Spear about 35 years ago. They all had cool nicknames and they decided that I needed one, too. It wasn’t something that I would have called myself — or ever imagined would follow me through life — but somehow, it stuck. At some point, I just quit fighting it.

Stevie Ray Vaughan once said he thought he could party till the cows came home. He found out that eventually the cows have got to come home. You appear to be in pretty good health these days. At what point did your cows come home?

I still enjoy having drinks with friends and I still love to smoke weed, but nothing resembling the partying that I used to do. Those days were fun and I’m glad that I survived them.

How did the song Sugarland with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux come about?

I had asked Monk to record the track Early in the Morning, which is based on a traditional Mardi Gras Indian rhythm. While he was already in the studio, we decided to try Sugarland, too — and it worked! His presence adds an otherworldly, almost spiritual quality to the song.

Tell me about 7 Walkers and how that came together.

I was playing a festival in Oregon with my trio and, as fate would have it, [Grateful Dead drummer] Bill Kreutzmann was in the audience. He liked my set and came backstage afterwards to introduce himself. We hit it off and spent the rest of the weekend just hanging out, jamming and talking music. We stayed in touch and ended up becoming friends. Soon after, we began playing a few shows, with Bill joining my band as a special guest. He introduced me to [Grateful Dead lyricist] Robert Hunter, and Hunter and I started writing songs together. It was Hunter that came up with the name 7 Walkers, which is also the name of one of the songs we’d written. Once we had an album’s worth of tunes, we went into the studio and cut the record with me, Bill, Reed Mathis on bass and Matt Hubbard on keys and miscellaneous instruments. Reed was unable to commit to our touring schedule. I had been doing some local gigs with George Porter Jr., so I asked him to join and, much to our amazement, he said yes. The record was released, got great reviews and we spent the next few years touring behind it.

Recommended Links

When people ask me if they should visit New Orleans I tell them to listen to Welcome to NOLA, the track you recorded with The New Mastersounds. You capture the feel of the city perfectly. Was that lyric improvised or written?
How did that collaboration come about?

Glad you like it. I had been friends with the New Mastersounds since their first U.S. tour and was partially responsible for them meeting some of their New Orleans musical heroes. So when they cut that track, they called on me. They gave me free rein to do whatever I wanted. It was mostly improvised in the studio.

What is Thunder Chicken?

A cheap brand of wine that me and my friends would illegally drink when we were 14 years old.

How can people buy your music?

CDs and (some) vinyl LPs are available through Amazon. It’s also available to buy digitally through iTunes and to listen to on all streaming platforms — Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, etc.

This interview has been edited and condensed.