Since Papa Mali hails from Louisiana, it’s understandable that some folks suspect voodoo is behind his charmed musical life. His signature guitar sound is a blend of the blues of the twenties and thirties, the psychedelic sounds of the sixties and the funk of the seventies, all stirred together like a thick gumbo and simmered to perfection. He’s played alongside blues legends like B.B.King, jam band icons like Bill Kreutzmann and funk founding fathers like George Porter Jr., always with the same attitude of respect and humility.
As he’s preparing for a special one of a kind set of tunes at the NOLA Crawfish Festival (Tickets Available HERE) our own Rex Thomson caught up with Papa and discussed the long and happy path that brought him to where he is today.
Live For Live Music: You first started playing guitar at five years old. Could you even pick one up?
Papa Mali: Basically, the first guitar I got was for my fifth birthday. The first one was kinda a toy, but it had strings on it and I would play. Then on my sixth birthday, my dad, he used to make frequent trips down to Mexico. He picked me up a handmade, nylon stringed guitar. It even had my initials carved in the headstock. I remember it had a price tag that looked like it said three hundred dollars, but it was actually three hundred pesos, which, at the time was only like twenty-four dollars. But it was a really nice guitar. I guess back then you could get a great guitar for twenty-four dollars in Mexico.
L4LM: For your parents to be buying you better and better instruments, you must have been showing a lot of love and talent.
PM: I was determined, I’ll put it that way. I don’t know how good I was, but I was determined. I was the youngest of three siblings. My brother was seven years older than me and my sister was eleven years older than me, and I learned pretty early on that if I wanted something, I better make a lot of noise.
L4LM: Well, looks like you have kept that noise making going.
PM: Yeah. (Laughs)
L4LM: Tell me about the impact seeing The Meters for the first time had on you.
PM: Wow man. Me and my cousin, with were in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I grew up in Shreveport, my mothers family is from New Orleans. I learned really early on that for a young musician, New Orleans has a lot more going on than Shreveport. Not that there isn’t some really good music in Shreveport, there’s actually some really interesting music being made there.
Anyway, I was in for Mardi Gras and my cousin and I were riding our bikes around when we heard some music, and saw a band playing on the back of a flat bed truck. From a distance I could see that Leo Nocentelli, I didn’t know that was his name at the time, but he was wearing a head band, and had an afro and was playing a Fender guitar. And man, I thought it was Hendrix, y’know? It was 1969, and I was a huge Hendrix fan, and I thought it was Hendrix. He was playing a guitar solo and I was so excited, so I fought my way down to the front.
But it was actually The Meters playing on the back of a flatbed truck. There was a big group of Mardi Gras Indians there too, who I’ve since come to realize it was The Wild Tchoupitoulas. Big Chief Jolly, who I met as George Landry, was the Neville’s uncle. He was the Big Chief of The Wild Tchoupitoulas at the time. Most of them were offstage, but they were all dancing. For me, I was still young enough to where just seeing the Mardi Gras Indians for the first time and The Meters blew my mind. Seeing a bunch of people dressed up like Indians and dancing was pretty amazing when you’re young. It’s still amazing.
But seeing something like the Mardi Gras Indians for the first time…hearing The Meters for the first time. Actually hearing a live band at all. The Meters were the first live band I ever really saw. I had seen some older kids practicing in their garage, but I hadn’t been to a concert yet. It made a huge impression on me. A two years later I saw Dr. John when he was doing his Night Tripper thing. It was a year or two later. The “Flatbed Meters” thing was in February of 1969. So it would have been sometime late in 1970 when I saw Dr. John do his thing. That was an even bigger revelation to me. Honestly, I was listening to a lot of funky, gritty music and I didn’t realize it was possible for anybody white to sound like that. (Laughs)
Seeing the Meters was a big revelation. Seeing the Mardi Gras Indians was a big revelation. And seeing Dr.John pull it all together as a white cat doin’ it…and also, bringing the psychedelic aspect…that was big to me. I got into psychedelic music at an early age…I started taking psychedelics at a pretty early age too…(Laughs) Seeing those elements come together with Dr. John doing the “Night Tripper” set, that pretty much solidified it for me. It gave something to strive for, something to kinda grow into.
L4LM: Like a lot of musicians you’ve spent a bit of time busking on the streets. I always like to ask artists how they did.
PM: I did pretty good. To be honest, I really didn’t do it that much time doing it. From the time period when I first left home…I left home pretty early. I was just seventeen, and I realized it was pretty easy way to make some fast money. Going out and opening up my guitar case I could always make twenty or thirty bucks in a couple of hours. It’s not that hard to realize it could tide me over, but really I was out there trying to look for gigs and establish a professional career. It wasn’t something I wanted to do for very long.
I did want to travel a lot. I did want to remove myself from my suburban upbringing. The only thing that was really different for me was that my situation was in a bayou. I could walk a block and be in a snake infested, alligator infested swamp. And I did. It was my playground, and I loved it. Like all kids I wanted to get out and explore. It was heaven. I learned how to kill snakes pretty early on, not because I enjoyed killing them but I was just defending myself. There were water moccasins everywhere.
L4LM: Did you ever get a gator?
PM: No, I never had to kill a gator. We did have a few though. There was actually a law in our neighborhood…I guess it wasn’t just in our neighborhood but any neighborhood along the bayou, that said you couldn’t tie your dog up. Because there were alligators that would come up out of the bayou at night, and if they couldn’t run away the alligator had itself a nice snack. If you had a fence it wasn’t a problem but a lotta places didn’t, and if you tied your dog up at night you might come back to find a empty leash.
L4LM: Sounds like a rough neighborhood.
PM: Nah…it didn’t seem that way at all when I was a kid. Maybe it could look that way in retrospect I suppose. But wherever you live out in the country there’s something you gotta watch out for. Where I was it was snakes and alligators but it wasn’t like we lived in fear of them or anything. There was one time, my first year of school, and I was running late. When I showed up everyone was standing around outside and when I asked what was going on they told me there was a twelve foot alligator in the foyer. I was like “We can’t even go in the building? Can’t we just go in the other doors?” And sure, any reason to get out of class is a good reason, but it just seemed to me that if the alligator was in the foyer why couldn’t we even go into the other parts of the building.
L4LM: It sounds like Louisiana has a very different version of snow days.
PM: (Laughs) Yeah, alligator days instead of snow days. That only ever happened one time though. But still, maybe a small dog that couldn’t get away was in danger, but it wasn’t like we lived in fear. It was just part of growing up.
L4LM: That fear may just be me. Alligators are like what happened when nature decided it needed armored killing tanks.
PM: They certainly can be. (Laughs)
L4LM: So how long has it been since you became a full time New Orleans resident?
PM: It’ll be five years ago next month, that I actually became a permanent resident of New Orleans. I’ve lived here in different periods throughout my whole life because my mother’s family from here. Some of my grown children moved here before I did. In the late nineties and early two thousands I would come and spend a lot of time either living at their house or with other members of my family. The first time I ever really became a permanent resident of New Orleans was five years ago.
I lived in Austin, Texas for many years. A lot of people still think of me as being from Austin, but the truth is I was brought up in Louisiana, and didn’t move to Austin until I was an adult. But I lived there long enough that people started thinking of me as being from there. Funny enough, no matter how long I lived in Austin people there thought of me as being from Louisiana. I was quite obviously not a Texan. (Laughs) It’s one of those things. Where you’re from is where you’re from, and that’s that. I was born in Vicksberg, Mississippi but my parents moved to Shreveport when I was three years old. I was raised there til I was seventeen when I left home and fillin’ out the rest of the years I’ve lived a bunch of different places.
I’ve lived in New Orleans, I lived in Austin, I lived in New Zealand for awhile, I lived in Tennessee for awhile. I did a lot of traveling, I did a lot of hitch hiking. Just travellin’ with bands when I was really young. But I’ll always be from Louisiana. When I was touring from B.B. King, the first night he asked me “Papa, where you from?” I said “Shreveport” and he said “Where you really from?” I said “Well, I was born in Vicksberg,” and he said “I knew it! Us Mississippi boys better stick together!” (Laughs) But I was really young when I moved from Vicksberg, so yeah, if people ask me where I’m from…I’m from Shreveport.
L4LM: You’ve played with some legends, like B.B. King. Did you see an impact on your style, playing alongside them?
PM: B.B. had an effect on my style way before I met him. I think it’s changed now, because of the internet, there’s like an information bank that everyone can tap into. But when I was growing up you either had to know somebody who was a record collector or you had to be one yourself and fortunately I was both. I knew somebody who was really connected to the blues word, and I collected records from the time I was six years old. By the time I got to be about fifteen or sixteen it was quite obvious that my blues influences were setting me apart from a lot of other guitar players who were just learning rock and roll. They were listening to Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers, and I was listening to the music that Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers were listening to, y’know?
I also had this guy, named Johnny “Slim” Campbell…John Campbell is the way most of the world came to know him but we always knew him as Johnny Slim. He was the real deal, he was steeped in Delta blues and lived it and breathed it and played it. He took me under his wing when I was fourteen years old and showed me the right way to approach the blues. As a white kid coming from the suburbs you have to humble yourself. You have to realize that this music is created by people that suffered for it. You can’t just come into it and say “Uhh…now I’m a bluesman.” That just doesn’t happen. There has to be a certain level of humility and devotion that puts you on that path, that makes you respect it.
To this day I still feel like I am a student of that genre, an interpreter. The real cats, the guys that laid it down, many years ago, they came from a time and place that can never be replicated. But the music can live on through guys like me who really respect it and take the time to carry those traditions forward.
L4LM: You’ve played with legends, and you’re regularly involved in jam sessions and frequently do sit ins. Have you learned any secrets to stepping into those kinds of musical situations that you could share with us?
PM: I definitely have some tips. A lot of it is what I just said…it’s a path. It’s not a phase that you can go through, it’s not a career path. It’s a like a spiritual path. Just like a holy man who decides to shed all of his possessions and follow the one true way. That’s the way a musician really needs to be to…you need to humble yourself you have to realize that this is a devotion.
I have a lot of friends, and I respect them for what they do. They’re not professional musicians, they learned to play when they were younger and may have kept playing as they became doctors or lawyers. They’re great doctors and lawyers, and they can actually play the guitar pretty well too. But these people, and I’m not actually talking about anyone specifically, don’t quite understand why guys like me get to play these great gigs with guys like B.B. King or all these great festivals and so on, and they can’t even get booked to save their lives.
They didn’t take the path, they took a different path and that’s why. It’s not because they’re worse guitar players or whatever…it’s because they chose a different path. There’s a reason everybody chooses the path they’re on. The best you can do is be the best you can be along that path. But the music path is hard. You have to humble yourself. You have to devote yourself. It only makes sense if you realize it’s a life long thing. It has nothing to do with money. It has nothing to do with fame. You’re doing this because you want to be a part of something much larger than you are. That’s my advice. That’s what I’ve gleaned from listening to my heroes, from watching the way they play and the way they live.
L4LM: Humbling yourself and striving to be your best seems like good advice for any path you’re on.
PM: Musicians aren’t any better than anybody else. If you’re a great gardener, and you put heart into being the best gardener you can be. It’s every bit of noble as being a musician and getting up onstage and making music or whatever. The simplest of tasks, if you put your heart and soul into it can be magic, that’s the most noble way you can be.
L4LM: Now that Bill Kreutzmann is back drumming, any chance for a 7 Walkers reunion?
PM: Oh, there’s always a chance for that. I mean, we ‘re all still friends, there’s no animosity or anything. I feel very fortunate we were able to keep 7 Walkers together as long as we did. Bill is obviously a guy who has seen and done everything. There’ll always be amazing opportunities available to Bill because he’s one of the best drummers in the world, and one of the nicest people in the world.
I just feel really fortunate that he was able to devote almost four years of his life to that. So there’s a chance for that to happen always there, and I would love it if it did. He calls me once or twice a year to come do stuff with him. I played the Lock’n Festival with him last year, and one of the Voodoo Dead shows during Jazz Fest. I’m still friends with him, and all the guys in the band. So yeah, from my point of view it could happen anytime.
But you know, Dead & Company is doing great right now, and they’re awesome. I’m out here doing my own thing. If nothing else, we’ll remain friends, so there’s that.
L4LM: There are a lot of folks who call 7 Walkers their favorite post Dead project. What made it so unique?
PM: I’ve been flattered when Deadheads told me the same thing. I think part of it has to do with the fact that it was very organic. We weren’t thrown together or brainstormed into life. Bill and I became friends. We started playing. Bill introduced me to Robert Hunter. Robert and I started writing. It just happened organically. Bill liked it, Robert liked it, I liked it…I think everybody involved liked it. So if it happens again, that’s the way it’ll happen. I have had a lot of people ask me about 7 Walkers, about what we’re gonna do and when we’re gonna do anything. It didn’t really end, we just took a break. And we all have so much going on. It could always happen again.
L4LM: When the Walkers were touring, you were actually a band mate of one of one of The Meters. Were you nervous the first time you played with him?
PM: George Porter Jr. I was nervous. Actually, when it came down to time to do the gig it wasn’t scary at all, ’cause George made me feel so comfortable. Prior to that gig I was very nervous though. He’s the best, he’s just fantastic. That was part of the magic of 7 Walkers too. I like to think I had something to do with it, but really, just having guys like Bill and George in the same band…that was pretty epic.
L4LM: A few years ago you had a serious health issue that had us all worried. How are you feeling now?
PM: I’m doing great, thank you for asking. That’s another thing if we’re talking about advice for young people…take better care of yourself. Take better care of yourself than I did. I didn’t take very good care of myself for a long time and finally it just caught up with me. Every once in awhile the universe just has to kick your ass and you learn this great lesson and hopefully you don’t repeat your mistakes. That’s where I’m at right now, and I’m doing better than ever. I feel like I learned a lesson I shoulda learned a long time ago, and now I feel I’m on the right track.
L4LM: The album you released last year, Music Is Love, has a pretty stellar cast of talent helping you out, including the deadly percussive duo of Mike Dillon and Johnny Vidacovich. Did you write material with specific players in mind, or did you just grab the best talent around?
PM: Some of the songs were already written. Before we did anything, my producer and I…I should say something about him before we go any farther. He had a big part in the way this album turned out. His name is John Schelew and he’s a three time Grammy winner. He produced the Blind Boys Of Alabama, but he also produced people like Donovan, Richard Thompson, Mick Jagger…he produced John Hiatt. In fact, his album he did with John Hiatt is one of my favorite albums of all time, called Bring The Family. It has Ry Cooder, Jim Kelper and Nick Lowe on it. That’s one of my favorite albums ever. When I first moved to New Orleans five years ago I heard that John was living in town. He had just moved here from Los Angeles, I had just moved here from Austin.
We had both just recently produced albums by Ruthie Foster. I had produced her kinda breakthrough record in 2007 and he produced her follow up album in 2009. We had kinda a mutual admiration society, he liked the album I had made with Ruthie, I liked the album he had produced with her, and I especially liked the records he had made with other people. So we had lunch, we became friends and we started hanging out. I think I mentioned before I’ve been collecting records since I was really young. I have like 4,000 records on vinyl. We started listening to records, several times a week. He’s pick out an album, I’d pick out an album. By doing that for about a year we kinda figured out what he likes and what I like.
I started to think there was a lot of common ground there. Then we started talking about cutting a record together, about him producing my record. It’s kinda tricky thing when you’re a producer and you know you need a producer, but you gotta find the right producer. Somebody that isn’t gonna take you in a direction you don’t want to go in. There’s a great deal of trust involved. So we did this for like a year and a half. We just played records and talked about what we would do.
I didn’t ask him to produce my record. I said things like “If you were producing my record what would you…” and “Who would you…” The one thing we agreed on instantly is that we both wanted Johnny Vidacovich to play the drums. We instantly agreed on that. Very soon after that we decided we wanted Casandra Faulconer on bass and Mike Dillon on percussion.
The song selection was a little more organic. I would play songs for him and he would say “Mmmm…maybe that one. Let’s develop this one. Definitely not that one.” By the time we got to the studio we knew exactly what we were gonna do. It turned out great. Invite the right people to the party and it’s gonna be a fantastic party.
L4LM: Any new material coming soon?
PM: Yeah, I’m working on new material. There’s a couple of projects I’m doing right now that are making interesting music. The M & M’s is one of the higher profile projects I have right now. John Medeski, Stanton Moore and Rob Mercurio and myself. We’ve been together about three years, but obviously those guys have really busy schedules, so we only play about three or four shows a year. I think we played six shows last year.
We’ve been releasing single every eight or nine months, and we have another one about to be released. We’re doing those just to keep our fans interested, and to keep ourselves interested. We go in the studio when we get the chance, we play shows when we can. The gigs are always amazing. When you get players together of that level…it’s like a happening. I love that, and I love being in a band like that where there’s no real pressure to be a full time ambassador for that one project.
Those guys have such a charisma and such a full time following that when the M & M’s get together it’s a scene, it’s a happening. I feel really grateful to be part of that, the same way I felt to be a pat of the 7 Walkers. It’s a great opportunity for me, and I love it. And it’s great music, and that’s the bottom line. Career choices, opportunities, that isn’t important to me. It’s all about the quality of the music and the human experience that happens along the way.
There’s another great project that’s very recent…this is something that I’m really excited about. I’m in a band called Mali, Burnside and Jay. It’s me, Cedric Burnside and Brian Jay from the Pimps Of Joytime. It’s just a trio, and we’ve done four shows so far. It’s got a lot of great energy, a lot of what you might expect from us. Brian, the front person, he is a great guitar player, he is a visionary songwriter and producer.
Cedric Burnside, of course, is R.L. Burnside‘s grandson so he has the legacy of the hill country blues. He was just nominated for a Grammy. Of everybody that’s living he’s probably at the forefront of the hill country blues movement. And I’m representing what I am, whatever that is. Psychedelic New Orleans funk blues…whatever. Swamp. (Chuckles)
So Brian Jay is representing his thing, Cedric is representing his thing and somehow it all works as one thing. It really does. All three of us sing. Brian Jay and Cedric both play the drums. We’re switching off instruments. Brian and I trade off playing the bass lines. It’s a great little trio. It’s in the spirit of The Black Keys and The London Souls, for lack of a better example. Kinda retro-sounding, but also contemporary if that makes sense. Rooted in blues, but more like seventies rock. There’s definitely something very psychedelic about the Mali, Burnside and Jay thing. We’re approaching it more like a rock band than a blues band.
L4LM: The set you’re playing at the NOLA Crawfish Festival is billed as “& Friends.” You have some pretty amazing friends…any hints as to who is coming with you?
PM: I haven’t announced it yet…but I will be soon. I don’t wanna jump the gun on that. It’ll be awesome though.
L4LM: With as many friends who play as you have, is it hard to put together a band like this without hurting feelings?
PM: No, not at all. Everybody has multiple projects. It’s like I said, it’s not television, it’s not sports. Nobodies better than anybody else, they’re just different. Everybody wants to play. Of curse they do. The thing you learn along the way, if you get passed over for one thing, it just opens the door for something else.
L4LM: That’s a wonderful attitude.
PM: I think some people are their own worst enemy in that regard. They concentrate on what they missed out on, not what is right there in front of them. Often times it breeds resentment. Those feelings don’t help you, they don’t help anybody. Those things only get in your way. You might feel like your indignation is justified at the moment, but it just makes you less desirable when that person might be considering you next time. Musicians who complain about what they could have gotten should really just focus on what they do have and what they can do. People might say that’s easy for you to say, but really and truly, I’ve had my share of being passed over. I’ve been doing this my whole life and I’m not rich or famous, but I’m very, very happy. I’ve always thought to myself, if I can make records and play shows and make good music that I’m happy with, then that’s success.
L4LM: Your zen outlook is really refreshing.
PM: Thanks. I have been very fortunate, and I’m sure that there are some people who feel like I’ve had more luck than them. And to those people I say keep poundin’ at it and don’t give up. Your own resentment will definitely get in your way. All the greatest musicians I’ve ever met have been the most giving, generous and loving people I have ever met. Their own success has a lot to do with how they view their path. It’s a spiritual thing and it’s about what you put into it. It’s like love. What you put into it is what you get out of it.
L4LM: Speaking of friendship and love, is there a more New Orleans way to make friends than at a crawfish boil?
PM: I tell you what. One of the very first times I ever ate Shaggy‘s crawfish was when Billy Kreutzmann first came to New Orleans for 7 Walkers planning. He came down here at my urging, I said “We gotta book a 7 Walkers gig down here during Jazz Fest.” Our friends who were running it at the time said “Shaggy’s a big Deadhead, you oughta get him to a big crawfish boil the first night he’s in town.” I think I’d eaten Shaggy’s crawfish before, but I didn’t realize it was him. That was the first time I was ever at a private party and got to watch him do what he does.
It was…I gotta say man…that guy does it better than anybody. I’ve never had crawfish that good anywhere else. I grew up eating crawfish. We had crawfish in the ditches up in Shreveport too. My friends and I would go out and spend about two hours crawfishin’, and we would come out with a couple of several bushels of them. And we’d throw a party that night and everybody would pitch in and we’d get a keg of beer and that was a fun part of growing up in Shreveport. So I know about crawfish man, and Shaggy’s is the best. Plus he’s a good guy. He gives a lot back to the community. He donates to a lot of the great causes. Anytime you see Shaggy’s crawfish rig parked outside of something you know it’s gonna be a good event. He’s got good taste in music and he knows everybody in the music scene. I like him a lot, he’s a good guy.
L4LM: Shaggy is gonna be cooking and serving a boil up all through the NOLA Crawfish Festival. What’s your plan…eat before so the smell doesn’t drive you crazy, or after when you can relax and enjoy?
PM: I always tell Shaggy to save a really good, big box of ’em for me so I can enjoy them after the show. If I eat too much before the show I’m gonna be sleepy up there onstage, and I don’t want that. (Laughs)
L4LM: Sounds like you have your musical and your actual plate full coming up. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Papa, and best of luck on your path.
PM: Thanks, have a great day.
If all that talk about music and crawfish got you hungry for a some food for your body and your mind, check out the NOLA Crawfish Festival. Three days of great music featuring artists like Papa Mali, George Porter Jr., Ivan Neville, and Anders Osborne, thousands of pounds from the NOLA Crawfish King founder himself, Shaggy and a specially brewed beer from the venue, the NOLA Brewery. Tickets and information available HERE.