Papa Mali

Papa Mali is a New Orleans-based singer, songwriter, and guitarist with repertoire ranging from deep soul blues to psychedelic rock to gospel, but he is perhaps best known as a founding member of the Austin-based reggae group, the Killer Bees, and for his collaborations with Bill Kreutzman and Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead in The 7 Walkers and other bands. He brings his deep musical knowledge, virtuosic guitar sensibilities, and warm personality to any stage he graces. 

Born Malcolm Welbourne in 1957, Papa Mali was raised in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he learned to play the guitar at an early age and worshipped the emerging gods of rock and roll: Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. His grandparents lived in New Orleans, and during frequent family visits the young Welbourne soaked up the city’s culture and vibrant musical landscape, hearing groups like the Meters when he was in his early teens.

Young Welbourne began kicking around the Southern blues scene, schooled by fellow Shreveport native and slide guitar master John Campbell. In 1977, he journeyed to Jamaica and heard the then-emerging reggae sound for the first time. Soon after, he and Michael E. Johnson formed the Austin-based Killer Bees, which gained international acclaim and was the first American reggae band to play Jamaica’s Sunsplash Festival. Members of Burning Spear gave the young guitarist his stage name: “Papa” after seeing him with his children, and “Mali” as a derivative of Malcolm. 

When the Bees disbanded, Papa Mali looked homeward to Louisiana and his musical roots. In 2000, he launched another phase of his career with the release of Thunder Chicken, a widely-hailed swamp-rock celebration that put him on the national map and the forefront of the burgeoning jam band movement. Mali quickly became a favorite performer at Bonnaroo, 10,000 Lakes, High Sierra, and other festivals, and he toured with household names like B.B. King, Derek Trucks, and Cyril Neville. His 2007 release, Do Your Thing, featured New Orleans favorites Monk Boudreaux, Kirk Joseph, and Henry Butler, while his third release, the 2015 Music is Love, included Casandra Faulconer, Johnny Vidacovich, Josh Paxton, Mike Dillon, and Dave Easely.

Mali connected with Grateful Dead percussionist Bill Kreutzman at a festival, and in 2009 they formed the band 7 Walkers along with legendary Meters bassist George Porter, Jr., (Reed Mathis was the first bassist), and Willie Nelson collaborator Matt Hubbard. Much of the band’s material was co-written by Mali and the Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter (who passed away in 2019). The band released one album, Response, in 2010, which was produced by Mali, and which included a duet with Willie Nelson.

He has also produced albums by Ruthie Foster, Lavelle White, Omar and the Howlers, Marc Stone, and others.

Papa Mali performs around New Orleans and tours with his own band, solo, or with guest artists. A recent project is the reggae-infused Shantytown Underground. He also collaborates with the New Orleans supergroup The M&M’s made up of Robert Mercurio & Stanton Moore of Galactic, and John Medeski of Medeski Martin and Wood.


Get the 'OZone monthly newsletter
facebook logo
Like us on Facebook
Volunteer at WWOZ
Hear it here!