Guitarist Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne made his reputation in Texas with the Austin-based Killer Bees; in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he grew up; and in New Orleans, where he went every summer to visit his grandparents. The dreadlocked axeman has hovered on the margins of New Orleans’ music scene for years, playing with the Radiators on one gig and Galactic on another. His 2007 solo release Do Your Thing, produced by Dan Prothero for Fog City, the San Francisco label central to Galactic’s development, is a classic New Orleans session—all rhythmic nuance and deep, grainy textures. The basic tracks were recorded in New Orleans at Truck Farm Studios with a core band that consisted of Papa Mali, Robb Kidd on drums, Kirk Joseph on sousaphone, Henry Butler on piano and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux on vocals and percussion. Mali’s approach to the New Orleans tradition is perfectly articulated on the otherworldly evocation of Mardi Gras dawn, “Early in the Morning,” with the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indians and Reverend Goat Carson throwing down an awesome chant.
The session for Do Your Thing took place before Katrina; after Katrina, he supported New Orleans’ evacuees in Austin, playing benefits and joining them onstage when possible. He played regularly with Cyril Neville, and his immersion in the city’s mix-and-match jam sensibility led him to start his own themed events around the city’s high holy events. During Jazz Fest, he hosts his “Stoned Soul Picnic,” and this month at Tipitina’s, he’ll be joined by guitarist John Mooney and other as yet unannounced stringbenders for his second annual Tipitina’s Thursday-night-before-Mardi Gras bash, “the Supernatural Ball.” This year’s edition adds a new twist. In addition to the Hot 8 Brass Band, the lineup will feature the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, a Boston-based brass band that takes inspiration from second line musical conventions but does unusual things with the genre. At a time when New Orleans brass bands appear to be searching for a path to the future, the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble’s reharmonizations of traditional material, melding of samba and Caribbean beats with second line rhythms, and infusion of new material such as Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” bring much needed new ideas to the genre.
The main event, though, promises to be high octane guitar pyrotechnics as Papa Mali and John Mooney play their own sets, jam with each other and sit in with the other guests.
Can you give me a little background on this event you’re doing at Mardi Gras?
It’s what I hope will be an annual event that I just started last year. I like to do a major event at Jazz Fest and one during Mardi Gras in addition to the other shows I do playing with people around town now and then. I’ve been doing something at Jazz Fest called the Stoned Soul Picnic going on about five years now.
The idea is to kind of create a carnival atmosphere in the tradition of the mystery and intrigue of the old days, where people can mask if they want to. I try to have some brass bands, some Mardi Gras Indians. Last year we had Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, we had Uganda Roberts on percussion, Jon Cleary on piano, the rhythm section from Galactic—Robert Mercurio and Stanton Moore, Anders Osborne on guitar, Big Sam on trombone and some others as well. The Reverend Goat Carson comes out and gives a little blessing to keep the spiritual vibe right. This year I’ve invited John Mooney to join me as well as the Hot 8 Brass Band and a band called the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble. People from New Orleans may not have heard about them because they’re not from here, but they really embody the spirit of what we’re trying to do for this particular event. I’m really excited about people in New Orleans getting to hear them because they’re very accomplished musicians and they’re getting a lot of notice in the jazz world, but their music is very rooted in New Orleans street music. The way they mask for performances and their approach to the music, they really embody the spirit of what I’m trying to do—an old fashioned Mardi Gras party with elements of mysticism and voodoo and spiritualism and all of the vibe that goes along with that. There will be more guests to be announced. We have a few surprises up our sleeve as well, plus there will be some guests we don’t announce at all, that’s what usually happens.
Will all the bands be doing their own sets?
Yes, everybody will do individual sets, and then they’ll play together as well. The spirit of the thing is to bring some musicians together who don’t always play together to collaborate and do their own thing as well.
Have you worked out what you’re going to do with Mooney yet?
John Mooney and I are planning on doing something of an acoustic nature together in between sets. I’m really looking forward to that. Maybe we’ll have Uganda joining us on percussion.
Have you ever played with Mooney before?
John and I have played together before. John Driver put on a show a few years ago called Slidemania, with me, Sonny Landreth, John Mooney and several other slide players, C.C. Adcock, Camile Baudoin, Brint Anderson. It was fantastic. At the time I was friends with just about everybody who played. Brint and I had a band together back in the ’70s. We first met when both of us were in our early twenties and were living for a time up in Little Rock, Arkansas. We formed a band up there called Streetdance.
That was a fascinating show. I talked with Camile about it and he had a great time as well. I always wanted to ask you guys about how you can balance all those slide players playing at the same time. How do you break that down?
You have to really have good intonation and a good sense of when not to play in order for that to work. That particular night, I didn’t hear anybody complaining. I thought it sounded pretty good myself and believe me, I know how it can sound. Having even two slide guitar players in a band can be really strange sometimes because in all those in-between areas where you’re sliding between notes, where there’s all those microtonalities. When they cross each other, sometimes it produces a very unpleasant frequency. I think everybody up there knew what they were doing enough so it really wasn’t a problem.
Can you talk about the similarities and differences between your approach to the guitar and Mooney’s?
He and I were both schooled in delta blues styles, but our paths have taken us in different areas. When I hear John play, I certainly hear the Son House influence—that’s huge with him, and Muddy [Waters] too, for that matter. But he’s got his own thing, just like I do and all the cats out there who’ve made a name for themselves.
I’m really looking forward to playing with him one on one because I feel like we really do have a lot in common musically, yet there’s enough difference there to make it interesting. It’s like playing with Anders. Anders is one of my favorite guitarists to play with. The very first time we played together, it was almost like we grew up listening to the same players or something. We’re different players, but we use a lot of the same tunings and have a similar approach to fingerpicking. We just have a natural language for the two of us to play together. I’m really looking forward to playing with John because I suspect it will be similar to that. I know he likes to play in open tuning.
What’s your relationship with the Hot 8 Brass Band?
The Hot 8 are good friends of mine. I’ve done quite a few shows with Hot 8. I’d welcome the opportunity to record with the Hot 8; they’re one of my favorite brass bands. All the brass bands that I’ve heard in New Orleans are great, but my two favorites at the moment are Hot 8 and Soul Rebels. I mean I’ve dug Rebirth and the Dirty Dozen for years, don’t get me wrong. Me and Swamp Thing [Harry Cook], we’re buddies. That’s how I got started playing with the Hot 8; me and Harry got to be friends and we like to hang out, and that naturally evolved into a musical relationship. We played a New Year’s Eve show last year in Salt Lake City: Papa Mali, the Hot 8 Brass Band, Big Chief Monk and Henry Butler. It was an outdoor show, freezing cold, snow on the ground, but we had a real good time.
Do you work out any arrangements with Hot 8 or is it mostly a jam session?
They do their thing and I show up and do my thing. I don’t know, we’re just all musicians so we just kind of know what works together when we play together.
Have you played with the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble?
I haven’t even met the members of the Snake Ensemble yet. I’m really excited about it.
You’ve become a part of the musical fabric of New Orleans over the last few years even though you’re more associated historically with Austin.
As somebody that grew up in Louisiana and spent a good part of my time growing up in New Orleans with my grandparents, I always loved it here. I live in Austin now, but I always feel privileged to be kind of an honorary member of the music community in New Orleans, and to get the love and respect I’ve gotten from so many of the great players in New Orleans is not something I take for granted. It’s something I really, really appreciate. For me to put together a couple of these shows a year is just my way of trying to give some of that love back. I know that when you live in New Orleans, you can see all these great musicians at different times of the year, but you don’t always get to see them in these kinds of combinations.
Are you playing anywhere else around town during Mardi Gras?
Again, I’m very blessed to have a relationship with the Mardi Gras Indians. I’m planning to do something on Mardi Gras morning with some of the Mardi Gras Indians as they’re coming out of their houses and performing. We have something planned with the 101 Runners. John Driver is putting that together, and I’ll let him make the official announcement of what it’s going to be. I’ll say this much: as the sun’s coming up, me and Kevin O’Day and some other musicians are going to be playing out on the street.
I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned.
You gotta stay awake is what. Stay awake!