Guitarist Papa Mali brings eclectic style to Tipitina’s

Friday at Tipitina’s, guitarist Papa Mali plans to delight his audience with a combination of music heavily influenced by the blues, New Orleans funk and the performer’s personal connection with the Grateful Dead.

“The biggest influence that I’ve had recently is my friendship with Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead,” Mali said. “His drumming taught me a lot about how to approach music with a different outlook.”

That new outlook inspired Mali and Kreutzmann to start a band called 7 Walkers in 2010. The band included George Porter Jr. of The Meters, Matt Hubbard, Kreutzmann and Mali. Mali said he is proud of the debut album the group produced, which also had words contributed by Robert Hunter, a well-known Grateful Dead lyricist.

Among the lyrics co-written by Mali and Hunter were those in “King Cotton Blues.” This song was recorded as a duet with Mali and country legend Willie Nelson.

“Willie is the most real, down-to-earth person that I’ve ever met,” Mali said. “He makes you feel like he’s just one of the guys.”

Despite the buzz from a Nelson duet and Grateful Dead connections, the 7 Walkers had to take a break due to a health issue affecting Kreutzmann’s left arm.

With the band’s drummer sidelined, Mali decided to start a new solo recording project in New Orleans.

Settling back into the Crescent City groove is a joy for the 55-year-old guitarist and songwriter, who grew up as Malcolm Welbourne before traveling to Jamaica in 1977 to absorb reggae music.

Mali said leaving the United States for an extended stay in Jamaica certainly raised eyebrows both here and there, but he was determined to follow his instincts to explore and develop his talent.

“I’ve never let cultural boundaries prevent me from music that was interesting to me,” Mali said. “When you really devote yourself to it, whether it’s blues or reggae, and you’re sincere about wanting to learn, eventually those master musicians will recognize that.”

This led to him co-founding the Killer Bees, a band that toured with reggae groups, including Burning Spear, who gave Welbourne his Papa Mali stage name.

Papa Mali launched his solo career with his “Thunder Chicken” album in 2000. This was followed by “Do Your Thing” in 2007 which featured many New Orleans musicians.

Returning to his first love of New Orleans music felt natural for Mali, but he still appreciates the various styles he’s played because they shaped him as an artist.

“When I was younger, like most developing artists, I was a blank canvas, and my influences were the colors I fill my canvas with. Eventually, it begins to take a shape of its own,” he said.

As for his performance at Tipitina’s, Mali plans to play music from various periods of his long career.

“I always give a good representation in my live set. There will be songs from the 7 Walkers catalog, stuff from solo albums, and they’re likely to hear some classic delta or hill country blues,” Mali said.

Mali said he sees performing at Tipitina’s as an absolute treat, and he is truly fired up about the show.

“Playing at Tip’s is always a thrill for me. There’s so much history in that room. I really look forward to it every time I play there. I always bring something special for a Tipitina’s gig,” he said.