Guitarist, singer, songwriter, and producer Papa Mali certainly puts his own distinctive spin on American vernacular music and it shows in his live performances and on several of his excellent solo albums. Far from a straight-ahead bluesman, Mali plays an enticing blend of blues, funk, swamp music, and soul, not unlike several other musicians who call New Orleans home. Mali lives in Austin, not New Orleans, but he was raised in Shreveport, LA and made frequent visits to family there throughout his youth.
Like so many others of his generation, Mali was most strongly influenced not by the Beatles, but by the bluesier, rootsier sounds of the Rolling Stones, and it was from there he worked backward to discover the songwriters from so many tunes the Stones covered. He began playing guitar at age four and was learning his favorite blues and rock tunes by the time he was 11. As a 12-year-old he saw the Meters perform at a Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans, and as a young teenager, the late blues-rock guitarist John Campbell took him under his wing and he learned a great deal from him; Campbell later moved to New York and cut some soul-stirring, powerful albums for PolyGram. In his late teens, Mali left home and traveled around the South, playing in juke joints and on the street for change and backing up touring blues and soul singers. In 1977 he took a trip to Jamaica and became fascinated with reggae music; he later teamed up with Michael Johnson to form the Killer Bees in 1980. The Killer Bees were one of a few American reggae-rock bands to play at Reggae Sunsplash in Montego Bay, Jamaica in 1988, and while on tour with Jamaican reggae musicians in the States, he received his nickname, Papa Mali. After the Killer Bees broke up, he pursued a musical career on his own, playing an amalgamation of blues, swamp rock, reggae, and New Orleans funk.
Papa Mali's albums include his debut, Thunder Chicken, 2007's Do Your Thing, and 2015's Music Is Love. His second solo album included contributions from New Orleans musicians Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, sousaphone player Kirk Joseph, and legendary blind piano master Henry Butler.
In 2009, he formed a band, 7 Walkers with Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, Meters bassist George Porter, Jr., and multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard. Their 7 Walkers self-titled debut was released in November, 2010 and features a duet with Willie Nelson. In more recent years, Papa Mali has gotten behind the console as a record producer. He produced the 7 Walkers' debut recording and also produced fellow Texas singer/songwriter and roots musician Ruthie Foster's The Truth According to Ruthie Foster for Blue Corn Music, a small, Houston-based label. Mali has also worked as a producer for other Austin-based musicians, including vocalist Lavelle White and guitar slinger and vocalist Omar "Kent" Dykes. ~ Richard J. Skelly