Papa Mali

Some players wake the dead. Papa Mali invites their spirits to jam. The dreadlocked, 50-year-old guitarist transforms his gigs into voodoo rituals where he channels the energies of bygone musicians who played the same venue. Born Malcolm Welbourne—and nicknamed by reggae superstar Burning Spear—Mali was raised along Bayou Pierre in Shreveport, Louisiana, and later moved to Austin, Texas. The bayou has remained in his blood, as is evident by his funky guitar onstinatos, gruff vocals, and slide lines that slither over swampy rhythms and howl at the moon. Anyone who has heard what Mali describes as his “electronically stereotized” CDs—2000’s Thunder Chicken and this year’s Do Your Thing [Fog City]—or who has experienced one of his all-night raves will testify that the man is way more than funky. He’s a musical shaman.

Where does your funk come from?
My mother is from New Orleans, and we’d always go to Mardi Gras, where I was exposed to parade rhythms, funky carnival sounds, and the Meters. I remember that the Meters were out on the streets playing on a flatbed truck. I was 12, and I’d already been playing guitar for about six years, but all of a sudden, I was face to face with the funkiest band in the world. And they were jamming with these Mardi Gras Indians wearing colorful costumes called the Wild Tchoupitoulas. At that point, I realized I was in it for the long haul. Along with Jimi Hendrix, Leo Nocentelli was my hero. Seeing him propel an entire audience by playing something rhythmic, repetitive, slinky, and funky made a huge impression on me.

How did you develop as a slide player?
I picked it up from a swampy Delta bluesman from Shreveport named John Campbell. The voodoo paraphernalia—bones and candles—that he’d lay around when he performed added to his mystic aura. He turned my head, because I’d just started listening to The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East, but I’d never seen a slide player before, so that sound was a mystery. Campbell turned me on to the roots of the sound—guys like Tampa Red and Charley Patton—and taught me about open tunings and their lore. I learned that the old guys called open G “Spanish Tuning,” and that open D was called “Vestapol.” I still use those tunings the most.

Your slide parts have a pretty unique tone.
Well, I like to use my Thomas Organ wah as a notch filter when I’m playing lead. I play fingerstyle, and I do a lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs to produce an effect that almost sounds like clavinet accompaniment underneath the slide. I also fret behind my slide—which is currently a hand-blown Glassbender Papa Mali model, although I used a ’40s-era red Bakelite slide on Do Your Thing. Sonny Landreth was the first guy other than myself who I ever saw do that, and although my technique is not nearly as sophisticated as his, I think it’s effective, because my music is more crude and raw.

Your sound is primal and organic, yet it’s also drenched in spacey echoes and reverbs.
I picked that up hanging out with Jamaican musicians. I love the dub aesthetic, and so does my producer, Dan Prothero. We’re both huge believers in the Roland Space Echo and Fender spring reverb—although the reverb on Do Your Thing is actually a Real Tube unit. Echoes and reverbs can create a sense of otherworldliness that can, in turn, create something altogether different and fresh.

How did you record the vibey acoustic and electric guitar sounds on Do Your Thing?
I played the acoustic parts on a ’62 Gibson LG-1 that has an old Bill Lawrence magnetic pickup. This allowed us to mic the guitar with a Neumann U47, and also run the pickup signal to a Supro S6601 1x8 combo. However, we didn’t mic the amp directly—it just provides a bluesy sound that rattles in the background. The primary electric guitar on the record is a ’58 Harmony Stratotone, but I also used a ’90s Epiphone Riviera, and a Gibson Les Paul Studio prototype that was presented to me by Les Paul himself in 1987. My amp is a 50-watt, ’74 Marshall head that I run into a Fender 2x12 open-back cabinet. My pedals include a vintage Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer and an ’80s Boss DM-2 Analog Delay. We recorded the Marshall with a close mic and a room mic, and I also ran the signal through an A/B box to the Supro, which we miked with a Shure SM57. On stage, my main guitars are a Gibson ES-137, an Epiphone Supernova, and an early-’60s Fender Stratocaster that used to belong to Hubert Sumlin. But gear and technique aren’t the whole story when it comes to my sound. I’m heavily influenced by vibrations, and I’m tuned into the spirit world.

On your CD liner notes, you acknowledge a variety of spirits, thanking them for their participation in your musical life.
I do. When you walk onstage at a historic place, you immediately become aware of all the great people who have played there before. I realize that the spirit world is around us all the time, and certain people are catalysts. They are open enough to supernatural possibilities that they can channel those spirits. Long ago, I became aware that I had learned enough about my instrument to let go, and that my best playing happened when I left my body, and let something else enter it. Dan understands that, and he has helped me translate it to tape by letting me surround myself with the right people, making me physically comfortable, and rolling the tape constantly to capture the magic moments.