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AUSTIN DAZE: Where does the name Papa Mali come from?

PAPA MALI: My nickname, Papa Mali came from the Burning Spear band. We were on tour with the Killer Bees opening for Burning Spear back in about ’86 and they came over to my house one day because we had the day off in Austin and I wanted to stop by my house and pick something up. I was in the van with them and we pulled up to the yard. At that time, my children were all younger – I have six kids–and immediately they said, “Malcolm whose children are them?” I said, “Those are my kids.” I was still in my 20’s at the time and they thought it was really funny that I had so many kids at such a young age. From that point on I was Papa Mali. My manager overheard it and thought it would be funny to put it in an article someone had wrote about us and the next thing I know I’m seeing it in print – it just takes on a life of its own.

Now that I’m getting older I feel more comfortable with it. But I always introduce myself as Malcolm because it seems less pretentious.

AD: Do your kids call you Papa Mali?

PM: They actually don’t call me Papa Mali. They call me dad.

AD: When did you start playing music and why?

PM: Like a lot of other kids I was seduced by early rock and roll. I really was a fan of spy music when I was a kid. I remember being about 4 or 5 years old and hearing Secret Agent Man and hearing the theme from James Bond and really liking that guitar sound. My mom got me my first guitar at Woolworth’s but it was just a toy. It was plastic and had plastic strings on it. So I asked my dad to get me a real guitar. He made frequent trips to Mexico and on my 5th birthday, he brought me back a handmade Mexican guitar that had my initials carved into the headstock. I remember seeing the price tag on it and it was 300–which was 300 pesos. At the time it was only $20 or something but I remember thinking, wow; this is a really expensive birthday present. So that was my first guitar.
And then the Beatles. I remember seeing them when I was either 6 or 7. I saw them and that really did it. The next day I asked my mom if I could start taking lessons and the first song I learned was the chords to “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” From then on it was just playing. That was 1964. So 42 years I’ve been playing.

I became really interested in blues music first through Jimi Hendrix and the Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones. But then when I was 14 I met this guy named Johnny Slim Campbell and he was like a real blues man. He played an old beat up National guitar and played open tunings and slide–all the heavy Delta guitar stuff. My older brother had hired him to play at a party and I went to the party and I saw John Campbell play and I was just mesmerized; I was just blown away. So the next day I went in my bedroom and I was just sitting here with my guitar putting on this Allman Brothers record, trying desperately to get that same sound that Duane Allman got. But I didn’t have a slide so I didn’t know how he was getting that sound. I’d seen John Campbell do it but I still didn’t understand what he was doing with a piece of a bottle on his finger.

Just as fate would have it, John Campbell came by my parent’s house to collect money for the party from my brother and he stuck his head in my bedroom and he said, “So you like the Allman Brothers, huh?” And I said, “Yeah, I can’t figure out how they get that sound.” He goes, “Well you’re going to have to get yourself a bottleneck.” And I was like, “That’s the thing you were playing the other night.” He said, “What you should really do is listen to the people that these guys listen to because they are good but they had to listen to somebody to get that style.” I asked, “How do I find out who that is?” And he said, “Come over to my house tomorrow and I’ll loan you some records.” So that’s how it started and eventually he started showing me things on guitar. How to tune down the guitar for different tunings for Delta Blues, how to use the bottleneck and eventually I had a full fledged apprenticeship going on where he was my mentor and I was his student. It all started making sense to me because of the bottleneck thing and the blues tunings.

That’s when I really started to learn the blues.

AD: At what point did you know you would be able to be a musician and keep it going?

PM: My older brother has always said that he believed in me because I knew who I was going to be since I was old enough to speak. It was never a question in my mind that I was going to be a musician. I always knew that. I always told people that I was a musician–even when I was so little they would just laugh when I would say that. They would say, “What are you going to be when you grow up? And I would say, “I’m already a musician.” I remember the summer after my third grade year I went to New Orleans to visit my grandparents. It was 1965, ’66 and my grandmother said, “I want to give you some money to buy some back to school clothes.” And that was the first time I had ever had money to go buy clothes with. I showed my cousin, who had just gotten her driver’s license, a picture of the Rolling Stones and said, “Is there any place that sells clothes like this?” And she goes, “The French Quarter. There’s a boutique that sells mod stuff.” My grandmother had given me enough money to buy 5 or 6 nice outfits at JC Penny or something but I went down and spent it all on one outfit. I still remember it. It was a paisley shirt with these kind of really fancy cuffs and kind of a poor boy shirt that went underneath it and red wide bell corduroys-hip huggers-and white leather shoes. And a pair of blue rimmed glasses and a little corduroy cap kind of thing. I was styling. So that kind of set the tone.

AD: Where were your first gigs?

PM: My very first gigs were playing at dances and the YMCA with other teenagers. I played at parties and at talent shows. That was a big one. Those actually felt like shows. There was the stage and there were lights and people had to sit down and there was a dark auditorium. Those were the first ones that really felt like shows. By the time I was in high school I had already formed several bands.

AD: Why did you choose Austin to settle in and how long have you been here?

PM: I’ve been here for almost 21 years. In 1985 I had been touring with the Killer Bees and at that time our manager lived here in Austin. The band had gotten scattered -somehow we were living in different cities. Michael was living in Dallas, Stan was living in Wichita Falls, I had moved back to Shreveport. Our manager said it would be really nice if we could all live in the same city so we could do rehearsals and photo shoots. And he thought Austin was just a great place to live. In ’85, Austin was just an incredible place for a musician to live. At the time Liberty Lunch was happening and we were starting to become really popular there. Our manager was also partners with the guy that ran Liberty Lunch, Mark Pratz, so in addition to being our manager he also booked a lot of the entertainment there. Any time a good reggae band would come through we would get the opening slot. Through that connection we developed a big following pretty quickly – after 1 1/2 years we were the biggest band in town. So it just made perfect sense for us to form a solid band base here in Austin. And then you know, life has a way of taking over from that point and we all started having kids and our kids were in school and had lots of new friends and it was home.

AD: We’ve seen you play many different forms. Which affords you the most creative expression? Do you have a preferred style or genre of playing?

PM: Absolutely. Where I am these days musically, is where I have always been in my heart of hearts and will be from now until I can’t pick up a guitar anymore. My own original vision of what I do is rooted in Louisiana culture but heavily influenced by world music and psychedelic music and experience. And I don’t mean just the drugs. I certainly believe using psychedelic drugs when I was younger influenced the way I saw the world, but more than that the doors that it unlocked and the spirituality that comes along with that influenced my version of Louisiana blues – based and funk – based music as well as my experiences playing Jamaican music and African music. I have a definitive style of my own that people can tell that it’s me that it is playing. It took a long time to come to that.
Every musician, every person has a journey and the things that they pick up on the journey help mold them into who they are. My musical journey has taken me through many different genres and musical experiences. After the Killer Bees, it was good for me to take on a few prominent sideman gigs like playing with Toni Price and with Ray Wylie Hubbard. Those were kind of like finishing school for me. Not only did it make me more versatile in my ability to collaborate with other people but it also made me more aware of my own stylistic uniqueness. It made me realize that I’m not supposed to be a sideman. Toni Price actually sensed that I was not really a sideman. My own solo record had just come out when I started playing with her and as much as I wanted to play with her, as much as I was honored to be in that guitar chair that had been occupied by all these great guitar players that I looked up to, I didn’t belong there. Toni sensed that. I felt like I was doing fine as far as holding up my end of things, but she realized every time we would try to start singing together on the microphone it would be like my personality was too strong to be a side person. And she knew that and encouraged me to go and do my own thing. From that point on I decided I’m not going to be a sideman anymore, it’s Papa Mali: do or die. At that point I sought out a new manager, a new agent, and I started taking my own career a lot more seriously. I began touring 200 nights a year and since then things have been just doing great. That was almost 5 years ago.

AD: You play in New Orleans a lot. How has the music scene changed since Katrina?

PM: It’s changed a lot because the entire city has changed so much. Let’s start with the positive side of things first: there’s a lot of hope in New Orleans right now. There’s a lot of strength coming to the surface that people didn’t even know that they had. There’s a lot of joy in simple things that people had forgotten; that many people had taken for granted. Musically, there are new clubs opening to fill the void of some of the old clubs that were destroyed. There is a spirit amongst musicians there that every day they are going to play like it might be the last time they play. There is a sense of pride and identity that can only come through people having been through something this tragic and catastrophic. On the flip side of that coin, there has been a human straddling; a dysphoria of people; a displacement of people that is probably the greatest since slavery times. There was just a mass exodus of people to other parts of the country.

In New Orleans, the inner city teenager who lives below the poverty level, who was already facing the temptation of gangs and drugs and things like that can lift himself out of that by being in a brass band. Or if he happens to be in a neighborhood that has Mardi Gras Indian Tribes he can sew a feathered costume and parade as a Mardi Gras Indian. He can be somebody. There is no other American city where we can say that. New Orleans social and pleasure clubs exist for that reason. In a time when racism and poverty were not providing a great many opportunities for a large portion of a population, they came together themselves and formed these social and pleasure clubs. The Mardi Gras Indians are a direct result of that sort of mentality. The powers that be tried to keep those less fortunate citizens down and they found inner strength by banding together; by forming these groups that celebrate their own culture and the African American way. That is what made New Orleans such a unique musical city. That’s where jazz was born. That’s where all various forms of rhythm and blues, soul music, funk music – they all came from those groups. After a while that element is what defined the city of New Orleans and the musical outlet that has come from there.

So now you have all these people that have been displaced. The Government is not giving them any incentive to come back. The neighborhoods were destroyed. I’m worried about the teenagers from New Orleans that are the best trumpet and tuba players on their blocks ending up in Detroit and having the elder inner city kids kick their ass and say, “There are no God-damn horns around here.” I’m worried about those kids. I’m worried about the effect it’s going to have on future generations of musicians. Trombone Shorty is one of the best trumpet players in the world right now. He is a direct product of what I’m talking about. A long history of tradition and people nurturing that talent in kids. That’s what makes New Orleans such an important place. They were treated so badly in the wake of Katrina. They were humiliated, they were left out to die, they were ignored and it was all on television. They were portrayed as uncivilized animals. These were proud people who were caught at their very worst. Why would people want to go back to a city that treated them like that?

AD: What do you think the city of New Orleans should do for displaced musicians?

PM: Not just for musicians, but for all the people that lost everything. There should be some sort of restitution plan. A lot of those homes had been paid for for years and passed down through generations. They are old houses and maybe they needed repair but they were paid for. I think the people that held deeds on property should be given another chance in some kind of way. I don’t know how it could be done but believe me, if we can spend billions on a useless war in Iraq, and make Halliburton one of the richest companies in the world, then we can afford to do that for the people who lost everything in the city. But the first thing that needs to be done is to build a levee system that will protect them when the next one comes.

AD: Tell us about your debut album Thunder Chicken.

PM: In 2000 when Thunder Chicken was released, I was going through a really weird time in my life. My best friend Michael Johnson of the Killer Bees was terminally ill and dying right before my eyes. My other best friend Mambo was dying. Mambo, Champ Hood and my dad all died within a couple of months of each other. It was a really hard time for me. My record had just come out and was getting great reviews all over the country. The first review I got was from Playboy magazine and they raved about it. My record label was saying, “Come on, you need to be out there touring.” And I was like, “Sorry, I can’t do that right now. I’m grieving.” Another year went by and I was still too traumatized to deal with it. I personally kind of dove into drinking and drugging and had a near death experience myself from just too much fun. But it wasn’t fun it was just me self-medicating to hide my pain. Eventually I healed myself and that’s when I realized it was time to take my music seriously and started touring and realized there was an audience out there for my record even though it had been out for over two years. It’s been almost 3 years since Thunder Chicken got re-released. Now that record has kind of run it’s course completely – it’s had a long shelf life -and this new record, Do Your Thing, is coming out and I’m really excited about it. It will be released on Halloween of this year.

AD: What kind of sound can we expect from Do Your Thing?

PM: Like Thunder Chicken, it’s a combination of influences: the biggest one being my initial exposure to music growing up in Louisiana. I lived there all through my formative years and heard all the great music that comes from Louisiana. And then, that got filtered through all the experiences I’ve had since then. It’s my love of Jamaican music and psychedelic music and unusual recording techniques. My quest to always want to play with other musicians–the new record really reflects that.

It’s almost a continuation of Thunder Chicken. It’s produced by Dan Prothero, the same guy that produced Thunder Chicken on the same label, Fog City Records, outside of San Francisco. It features several very legendary New Orleans musicians: Henry Butler on piano, Kirk Joseph, an original member of Dirty Dozen Brass Band, on saxaphone, Chief Monk Boudereaux of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Tribe. It was recorded in New Orleans before Katrina. We did overdubs in San Francisco months ago and the last couple of months have been mixing and editing and all of that. There is a promotional video shot for it by the same people that do all of Norah Jones’s stuff. I’m very proud of it.

The other thing I’m really proud of is that I just got through producing Ruthie Foster’s new record and it sounds amazing. It’s going to be released the first of next year. I think a lot of people are going to be very surprised by it. It’s kind of a return to her roots. She grew up singing in a black Baptist church in a rural town in East Texas. I wanted her to get back in touch with that. She is a fantastic piano player and people don’t even know that because she always just plays the acoustic guitar. I have her playing a lot of piano on this record, and she’s singing a lot of classical songs and soul and gospel songs in place of the folk thing she’s been doing most of the time.

AD: How did you get into producing? What is that like?

PM: I started producing when I was with the Killer Bees because I was the only member of the band that wanted to spend all the extra hours in the studio hanging out with the engineer learning how to do things. From the very first Killer Bees record back in the early 80’s, I would watch the guy in the studio after everybody else would go home. Even before that, when I was young, I would listen to records carefully and wonder how they did that – how they got that sound. It was a natural curiosity for me.

When I produce an album, I like to work closely with the artist in selecting the musicians that play on the recording. I’m there every second of the recording process. I make suggestions about mic placements, about arrangements, about what instrument to use, about how songs are sequenced on the record. If I take on a record production it is going to reflect a lot of my own personal approach and philosophy of music.

AD: You’ve been in town awhile and you’ve seen many changes. What have been positive things and what have been negative things that you have seen here?

PM: I missed out on the Armadillo so I can’t use that as a reference other than I’ve heard all about it and it must have been a magical scene. I did get here right in the hey day of Liberty Lunch and Liberty Lunch closing down was the end of a certain era of Austin music. I was there at the creation of SXSW because my manager at that time, Louis Meyers, was one of the founding partners, and I think that was a very positive thing as far as Austin music goes. I also remember when KGSR formed and that was a very positive thing for Austin music. I think they have done a really good job of reflecting the taste and mood of the city. There are very few cities that have a major station that is as geared towards a local scene as KGSR is. And of course KUT has always been fantastic. Guys like Larry Monroe -has a wealth of knowledge of music and always been very supportive of music in general. ACL Fest and Austin City Limits television show. Austin City limits television show put Austin on the map for the rest of the world as far as music goes. And ACL Fest has just been tremendous.

AD: And the negative?

PM: Well, whether you like it or not it’s bigger. And bigger doesn’t always mean better. From my perspective, I love the people of Austin for being as good to me as they have
been. Just this year the Killer Bees were induced into the Austin Music Hall of Fame by the Austin Chronicle readers. And that meant so much to me. It was a very proud moment.

The flip side of that is the Killer Bees were such a big deal locally, that it overshadows what I do now to people here. My career in the last three years was really bigger than the Killer Bees ever were and it’s hard for a lot of people to see that. I’ve played Bonnaroo, I’ve played Jazz Fest–all these huge events that the Killer Bees never got to do. When I come back to Austin they still say, “What are you up to these days?”

AD: Tell us about the Imperial Golden Crown Harmonizers?

PM: That is our public service work. It’s something that we do that makes us feel good and makes other people feel good and helps the community. We specifically formed the band because everywhere I would go I would talk to veteran musicians who were not really what you would call super religious music but they loved gospel music. The way I choose to worship is by treating my fellow man the way I would like to be treated, and try to spread as much love as I can, try not to destroy my environment and just giving thanks as often as possible. When I hear the Staple Singers praising the Lord I feel the same way, I feel like jumping up and shouting Hallelujah! The more I talked to other people I realize there are a lot of people like me that feel the same way. There are a lot of musicians that feel the same way. So when we put the Imperial Golden Crown Harmonizers together it was me, Scrappy Jud, Paul Mills, Larry Fulcher and Malford Milligan. Pretty soon Larry got busy playing and couldn’t do the gigs. It ended up being a rotating cast of characters but the one thing we all have in common is that we think that one of the most spiritual things that we can do is to get a group of people together and sing our hearts out for them, leave them feeling happy and then take all the money that we make and give it to people that are living out on the street and need help. That to me feels like good Karma, it feels like church, it feels like love. It may not be religion but it’s the closest I’m going to get.

AD: What is the lesson you’ve learned being involved in the music industry?

PM: The greatest lesson I have learned is that music is a gift but without an audience it is like a gift that remains unopened. You have to give face and never take your audience for granted and always be grateful that there is somebody out there that wants to hear what you want to say. Without that happening, it’s like the tree that falls in the forest that nobody hears fall.***

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  1. Vikki

    Papa Mali has been a great icon of the music scene here in Austin. I really enjoyed reading the interview. Congratulations on your “Best of Austin” award. Have a nice Daze!!

  2. Jipes

    i just discover your article and it’s really highly informative. I got to know Papa Mali through my love to New Orleans music and he’s a great musician. it’s really nice to have a deeper insight on how he became this wonderful player !