MUSIC: July 9, 2001
Who's Your Papa Mali?
Malcolm "Papa Mali" Welbourne
has lived in Austin, Texas for 18 years,
has traveled extensively through Jamaica and New Zealand, and was
the co-leader of the acclaimed reggae band the Killer Bees
He's also the unlikely brainchild behind 1999's
a quasi-psychedelic hardcore funk album reminiscent of
Dr. John's Gris-Gris and In The Right Place
one of the best New Orleans funk and swamp-rock records in recent memory.
"After playing reggae for so many years, I wanted to make this record as a love
letter to my childhood," says Shreveport native Welbourne,
via phone from Austin.
"My mother's family lived in New Orleans, and when the train still ran from Shreveport
to New Orleans, every year we'd take the train in for Mardi Gras.
Back in those days, my cousin and I were allowed to ride our bikes
all over the city. I was exposed to good music, the carnival vibe,
the African elements of the city -- I wouldn't be who I am today without
Welbourne's New Orleans adventures aren't the only Louisiana signposts
(Fog City Records). Welbourne's primary inpiration on guitar was acclaimed Shreveport gris-gris
bluesman John Campbell -- who dies less than two months after his headline
appearance at the 1993 Jazz Fest -- and the album is packed with
judicious layers of slide guitar playing, from the rising accents on a funked-up
version of Clifton Chenier's "Bon Ton Roulet" to the murky bottom-of-the-bayou
lead on "Keep Happy".
"John was my mentor and teacher," says Welbourne. "When I was just 12 or 13 years
old, he took me under his wing and said, 'I think you could benefit from listening to
these old blues records.' He heard me playing along with an Allmans record one day, and then
turned me on to the real classic blues stuff,
and started giving me lessons.
He showed me how to play bottleneck [slide]. More than anyone else,
he was an inspiration."
While Campbell was Welbourne's guide to African-rooted blues traditions, it was
Welbourne's wanderlust that opened his eyes and ears to Caribbean sounds.
"As soon as I turned 17, I took off hitchhiking all over the place, and then
I went to Jamaica in '76",
says Welbourne. "I was there for three weeks, and I had an experience.
The best reggae music made was during that time, in my opinion, with all
the harmony groups, all the dub records. I came back a changed person, and knew I needed
to explore that further."
The idea of a reggae band in north Louisiana in the mid-70s was somewhat
radical. "I called Michael Johnson and said 'We've got to start a reggae band'"
Welbourne remembers. "Michael said, 'It'll never work,' and paused and grinned,
Johnson and Welbourne packed up and moved to Austin, forming the Killer Bees.
The band became an internationally respected reggae band (Cyril Neville sang the
title track of the band's second album), and in 1987 earned
the honor of becoming the first American band to play at the Reggae
Sunsplash Festival in Montego Bay. "We were together 20 years," says Welbourne.
"Michael was my best friend." Johnson passed away earlier this year after
recurring health problems.
Welbourne hasn't ruled out a return to reggae, but he's hit an artistic high
mark with Thunder Chicken. The cover selection --
including Dr. John's "Walk on Guilded Splinters", the Wild Magnolia's "Fire Water"
and Buddy Guy's "Man Of Many Words" -- shows big cojones, and Welbourne
pulls them all off with a concoction of dripping guitar reverb and wah-wah
pedal flashes, funky clavinet, waves of trap-drum percussion and slurred,
singing-from-the-side of the mouth vocals dripping with grease.
The album's engine is drum legend Barry "Frosty" Smith,
who channels decades of experience playing with everyone from
Sly Stone to Dr. John, turning the shuffle "If I Ever Get Right" inside out
into a gloriously off-kilter stumble, and making Welbourne's "I'm The One"
into a soul march.
The band's performance this week at Tipitina's is Welbourne's first headline
appearance here since the album's release -- and Welbourne's understandably
happy to be coming back to town.
"I still have family in New Orleans, I met my wife in New Orleans,
I got married at the Columns and the Dirty Dozen played my wedding," he says.
"There's always been that connection for me. New Orleans has had a
huge influence in my life."
- Scott Jordan