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New Orleans and the Caribbean collide

Pete Fowler
Special to the DailyPapa Mali was given his nickname by the reggae band, Burning Spear.
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VAIL Malcolm Welbourne intuitively discovered and followed the link between related African influences found in both New Orleans and the Caribbean islands.For the past five or six years, Welbourne has been touring under the nickname given to him by the reggae band Burning Spear – Papa Mali. In this phase of his career, he pays homage to his youth with a return to Southern musical roots after playing reggae for almost 16 years. His style captivates the listener on a very fundamental level by laying down elements of funk, Delta blues and Southern rock under his raw, heavy vocals. Mali himself described the sound as, “Delta slide guitar with funky, Southern-fried vocals.”Others have called it “swamp blues,” and “voodoo funk,” but the fact remains that he rocks, bringing to bear a wide array of rich influences – however one labels it.Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi and raised in Shreveport, La., Welbourne was no stranger to New Orleans. As a boy, he spent summers with his grandparents there, engaging in all manner of childish mischief and exploring what the city had to offer in the ways of music and culture.

“Every Mardi-Gras, Mom and Dad took me out of school,” said Welbourne. “It’s where I got my first musical education.” The first professional show he saw was The Funky Meters, who are known as some of the founding fathers of funk. Welbourne got his first guitar at age 5 and began taking lessons from John Campell around age 12. One of Welbourne’s first main influences, Campell taught him the nearly lost art of the Delta blues guitar style, teaching techniques like the bottle-neck slide in open tunings. He progressed musically and began to play in various bands around age 14. After High School, Welbourne felt like traveling the world. Among other places, he visited Jamaica where some of the reggae going on at the time had a profound effect on him. He began to solidify his perception that the island music of the Caribbean was tied to and exhibited a two-way influence with the music and culture of New Orleans. Welbourne would later learn from some of the older Jamaican musicians that they had been picking New Orleans radio from the air waves, hearing players like Professor Longhair and Fats Domino who “profoundly influenced the direction of reggae and ska,” he said. The counter-influence can be seen readily in the New Orleans and Southern culture. An excellent example is the African, Caribbean and Voodoo influences over musicians like Dr. John. His album title “Gris-gris” is a New Orleans term for Voodoo, which was originally an African religious tradition. The ideology has been transplanted to many places including the Caribbean islands. Even Welbourne’s music as Papa Mali has been described as having a Voodoo edge to it, but this is another story.Welbourne eventually moved to Austin, Texas, and formed the reggae band Killer Bees in 1981 where he made a name for himself as their lead guitarist. The band enjoyed a widely successful run of about 15 years. In 1987 they became the first American band to play the Reggae Sunsplash Festival in Montego Bay. In the same year, their first release, “Groovin,” won the Best Reggae Recording award from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors. The band eventually split up in the mid-90s. Although he enjoyed his time with the Killer Bees and remains friends with its members, Welbourne expressed no serious remorse.

“I never intended to spend my whole life playing one genre of music,” he said. In 2000, Papa Mali released his debut CD “Thunder Chicken” on Fog City records. The name came from a brand of cheap wine he discovered during an underage attempt to buy booze in a fit of boyhood mischief. During the recording, Mali forged a strong relationship with producer Dan Prothero. “He’s one of the most gifted producers in the world today,” said Mali, who has made sure to use him on his current album, which is recorded and is about to be released on Swampland Records. Mali appreciates Prothero’s knowledge of “old-school recording techniques,” as well as his, “ability to bring out the best in an artist.” “Thunder Chicken” is largely a tribute to his childhood memories. Despite favorable reviews, Mali said that the album had slipped under the radar a bit as he hadn’t been able to tour in support of it due to some heavy personal times where he had lost people close to him. After a brief hiatus, he has kicked into full gear and has been working constantly with no desire to slow down.



Seeming to be primarily a solo singer/songwriter type of guitarist at heart, he has played with a variety of drum and bass players. Playing for the last several months with bassist Jimbo Hart and drummer Nick Summers feels right.”I have a feeling they’re going to be with me a long time,” he said.Papa Mali will be playing with friends and musical companions Galactic tonight at 8150 at 10 p.m.Pete Fowler is a freelance writer and can be reached at p_fowler1@yahoo.com


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