Q&A with Papa Mali of the 7 Walkers
August 23, 2012
TRUCKEE, Calif. – A native of Shreveport, La., Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne was 15 years old when he saw his first concert. It was the New Orleans band the Meters, which included bassist George Porter Jr. An accomplished guitarist, Papa Mali played in the reggae band the Killer Bees. During a tour, reggae artist WInston Rodney, aka Burning Spear, gave him the name Papa Mali. In 2009, Papa Mali and Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kruetzmann formed the 7 Walkers, which includes multi-instumentalist Matt Hubbard, a longtime band member with Willie Nelson, and Reed Mathis of Tea Leaf Green. Porter joined 7 Walkers in 2010, replacing Mathis. Papa Mali and Grateful Dead composer Robert Hunter wrote most of the original songs. Before Friday’s show at the Truckee River Park Amphitheater, Papa Mali spoke with Lake Tahoe Action’s Tim Parsons.Q With its personnel, the 7 Walkers certainly can be called a supergroup, but it seems like it goes even deeper than musical relationships. Am I correct?A It was really friendship that got us started. Bill (Kreutzmann) has been at a point in his life, ever since Jerry (Garcia) died he didn’t want to just be out there just for the sake of doing it. He was one of the last holdouts when they were doing things like the Other Ones and all that. He just felt like he had taken it as high as he could go and without Jerry it was not going to ever be the same. I don’t want to say he retired, but he found a beautiful life in Hawaii and he didn’t really want to go out and play that much. When he and I became friends, he could kind of see the possibility to be doing that a little more and then when he introduced me to Robert Hunter and Hunter and I started coming up with some really solid material. Everybody could see there was something special going on. Q This must feel like being a basketball player on the Dream Team with Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.A I guess me bringing George into the band was the final thing that really made it all click because Matt Hubbard, who I also introduced him to Billy, I knew he would be the right guy. I know lots and lots of musicians and I thought about it a long time before I acted on that. But I knew Matt would be the right guy. He’s got the right personality. He’s got the right musical background and he plays different instruments and he sings well. He gets along with people. But when George joined the band it all came together in a way nobody expected. I never dreamed that George would have the time or the inclination to want to do something like that on a regular basis. There are so many people who want George in their band.Q Billy Kreutzman and George Porter Jr. Not a bad rhythm section.A Billy was very blown away. The Grateful Dead loved the Meters and New Orleans music. George and Billy get along great because they have so much world touring experience and mutual respect for each other. George has really embraced the legacy of the Grateful Dead. He sings “Sugaree” and “Eyes of the World” “Smokestack Lighting” He just nails it. He works so hard and he loves the music. Q Hunter emails lyrics to you and you write the music. Have you written songs this way before?A No. Hunter’s lyrics are so fully formed and realized, I think he gets me and I think I get him. I can look and his words and sometimes he’ll give me a clue. Q Are there a lot of Dead fans at your shows and do they have high expectations?A A lot of times we maybe exceed their expectations in a way they didn’t expect. Yes, a lot of our crowd are Dead fans. By now the word has gotten around about what we’re all about. In the last year we’ve come together as a band, too. … We’re a new group. Partly Grateful Dead, partly New Orleans, but now we’ve been together long enough where we’ve jelled at a different level and people who are just now seeing us for the first time, a lot of time the might have something in their mind about what to expect and then they come away realizing its more than the sum of its parts. As good as it might look on paper, it’s more than that.Q The Dead would play songs live for years before recording them in the studio. Do the 7 Walkers play songs live first?A As far as the new Hunter originals, I’m the one in the band whose a little cautious about having too many live versions of it before the studio version comes out mainly because I am also the producer for the band and being in a situation where I care about those songs so much that I don’t want versions of songs that aren’t quite realized floating around before the real thing comes out. Q Were you a Deadhead?A I was a real big Dead fan from high school through my mid-20s. I bought every album that came out up to “Blues for Allah” all their ’60s and early ’70s I bought all that stuff on vinyl. Hunter and Garcia songs were as big a part of my consciousness as Dylan songs or Rolling Stones songs or anything else are. But I didn’t follow the band around and go on tour and hang out in the parking lot. I didn’t trade tapes. I didn’t do any of the stuff that so many people did later, one, because I was busy being a musician myself and I didn’t have that much time or energy to devote anything other than what I was doing. Now that I’ve been with Billy for three years, I’ve become much more steeped in the history of the Dead. I’m amazed at how many songs the Dead covered that were part of my musical history, too. Lots of old country and blues stuff. I pulled out some old song the other day, “Alimony” and Bill said, “We used to do that.” I thought that was an obscure song. I do some stuff like “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” and somebody’d go, “Oh yeah, Jerry used to do that.” I didnt know that. It doesn’t surprise me because that’s where the Dead were coming from. They were coming from traditional American music. They were the original Americana band.Q My opinion is our country’s greatest cultural contribution to the world is our music that came out of New Orleans and the Delta. What is your view?A I completely agree. I became aware of that when I was playing reggae. I remember distinctly one time feeling that while I was getting to hang out with the big boys in reggae but feeling like I’ll never really be much more than just a white kid from the suburbs in Shreveport. In one way that’s kind of true but again it was Burning Spear who said, “You have musical roots in New Orleans and we learned most of what we know from listening to New Orleans music.” It reminded me I guess I do have some sort of root there. That eventually made me quit pursuing somebody else’s culture and reclaim my own.Q I suppose growing up in the suburbs led you to guitar, because if you were from New Orleans you might have chosen another instrument.A Like a lot of other kids, I was influenced by The Beatles and the Stones and Hendrix. If I was actually born in New Orleans, I might have become a horn player or a piano player, which wouldn’t have been bad either. Being from Shreveport I was getting a lot of different influences, too. Louisiana Hayride and Johnny Slim Campbell – he was very influential as a guitarist.Q I read producer Dan Prothro helped you realize some good things about Shreveport for the first time. Is that true?A Yes. He made me realize that everybody has some things about their hometown that they might not particularly appreciate but if you dig a little deeper you will find some stuff that you do appreciate, too. And he did. He encouraged me go back to Shreveport and relive some of the things that really did help make me who I am. And I did and it was quite a revelation for me at a time when I thought I’d already been though all those kind of changes I was really surprised. It opened a floodgate of memories which allowed me to write music about things I remembered that were cool growing up in Shreveport.