Papa Mali Digs Into His Roots, Seeing George Porter Jr. for the First Time, and Playing with Bobby Vega
June 20 / Thursday
With over four decades of touring and recording experience, acclaimed NOLA guitarist and producer Papa Mali and Bay Area bassist extraordinaire Bobby Vega have teamed up to explore the minimalist possibilities of string music. In anticipation of these virtuosos gracing our stage, we caught up with Papa Mali and learned about his history with 7 Walkers alongside Bill Kreutzman, George Porter Jr., and Matt Hubbard, his musical influences over the span of his career, and what it means to play with Vega. Read the interview below and get tickets for the show at Garcia's on Thursday, June 27!
1. At the young age of 14, you found a mentor in the great blues guitarist John Campbell, who then turned you into a serious blues artist yourself. How did those experiences mold you into the musician you are today? Do you find yourself becoming a mentor for younger musicians?
Yes, I love teaching kids who are interested in learning the roots - things from days gone by, that I was fortunate enough to learn when I was young, from John Campbell and others along the way. There are few things as rewarding as sharing knowledge, especially with young people. To plant those seeds, nurture them and witness them grow to fruition, is one of life’s greatest gifts, because it continues to give, by fostering a future that respects tradition and the lessons of history, while providing a foundation, to advance new and modern frontiers of creativity.
2. We read in an interview that you saw The Meters for the first time on the back of a flatbed truck during Mardi Gras. At that time, could you imagine that you would one day be bandmates with George Porter Jr. as part of 7 Walkers? What was the experience like of playing with one of your heroes so many years later?
I have thought about that day so many times, throughout the years. It’s a real mind-blower, but the truth is, I did imagine that one day, I might play with my heroes - and it just reaffirms my belief that dreams do come true, to those who aren’t afraid to believe in them and work towards achieving their goals. I have always been open to the possibility that miraculous things happen everyday. It’s up to us, to recognize them. If the doors of our minds are closed, whether by fear or the perception of improbability, opportunity will knock elsewhere.
3. During your time in 7 Walkers, a band that featured Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, you wrote music with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. What was the writing process like? Did it come naturally or did it take a bit of experimenting? Are you a Deadhead yourself?
I’m very proud of the songs I’ve written with Hunter - especially our first co-write, "King Cotton Blues" which was recorded by 7 Walkers as a duet, with me and Willie Nelson, trading vocals and guitar lines. Since then, we’ve co-written nearly a dozen more, some of which were on the 7 Walkers album and a few, that are just now getting played for the first time in public, with this duo.
Am I a Deadhead? Yes, since the summer of ‘72, when a previously mild-mannered schoolmate, arrived home from prep school ‘back east’, with his hair all grown out long, tie dyes, beads, a stack of Grateful Dead records and a sheet of clear light windowpane! We reconnected and at the age of fifteen, I jumped on the bus and never looked back! I eventually saw them live and bought all their records. However, unlike most Deadheads of my age group, after high school, I continued to see the occasional show, but never followed the band’s tours from city to city, traded cassettes, or did the parking lot scene. I was determined to make my own musical path and that kept me busy for the next several decades. Then, I met Billy and we started playing music together. Not long after that, he introduced me to Hunter and we began writing songs, so yeah - it all felt pretty natural. I’m of the belief that, if I had been a hardcore Deadhead first (and an artist, second), I would never have had that opportunity. The fact that I didn’t instantly recognize Kreutzmann when I met him, made it so easy for us, to get along and be real with one another. He’s a very down-to-earth guy and if he had thought for a moment, that I was star-struck, he and I would have never bonded as friends. Much of the relevant Deadhead lore and mythology that I might have missed out on, by not being at hundreds of shows or in the lot, has since been brought to my attention, by the people who lived it, the guys in the band and the fans! And there’s still so much to learn, the never-ending tales of the golden road! I’m very honored, to be even a tiny footnote, in their great legacy! And yet, it’s not all that defines me, as a musician or as a person. New Orleans certainly deserves some of that credit!
4. You'll be playing as the Papa Mali and Bobby Vega Acoustic Duo at Garcia's on Thursday, June 27. Bass Player Magazine has noted, "Vega is a one-of-a-kind bass maestro, who sounds like no one else on earth." What can music fans expect from being in the presence of Vega's bass virtuosity, but in an acoustic setting?
Bobby is widely recognized as one of the greatest bass players in the world, but many have only seen and heard him play his famous electric bass (a 60s vintage Fender Jazz Bass called ‘The Shark’). When he plays acoustic bass guitar (a handmade signature model, which he co-designed with master luthier Tom Ribbecke), he reveals deeper layers of his amazing feel and technique. Rich, sonorous tones, deep and warm, that can only come from an acoustic instrument. You must see and hear it, to believe it.
5. Inspired by the duos of the late Jerry Garcia and John Kahn, and Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen, you and Bobby Vega have teamed up to explore the minimalist possibilities of acoustic string music, in a duo format. Since you'll be playing at a venue named after Jerry, inside of the legendary Capitol Theatre which hosted 18 shows with the Grateful Dead from 1970 - 1971, can we expect to hear any Dead tunes during your show?
Not only can fans expect to hear a lot of Dead tunes, those with a keen ear may also recognize some traditional songs, that helped inform Jerry and the boys, when they were just learning their craft. Like the Dead, like Jerry, John Kahn, Jack and Jorma, we try to touch on all of the elements that shaped us as musicians, too. Given our backgrounds, that’s a lot of inspiration to draw from!
And because we’ve actually played with most of those guys, in various configurations, Bobby and I both understand how to navigate the tricky waters of improvisation, turning on a dime and sailing easily, between various song forms, without discussing it or even writing it on the set list. "Mountains of the Moon" into "Dark Star" into "Dark Hollow" and ending with "Wharf Rat"? No problem. Without a net, here we go.
Pete Shapiro has always been a supporter of our various endeavors and because of The Capitol Theatre’s history with Jerry and the Dead, we had long hoped that our East Coast debut as a duo, could be at Garcia’s. What can I say? Dreams do come true!