By Tom Speed

The Rockin’ Chair: Don’t Know Much About Geography

Big Chief Monk Boudreaux
Jazz Fest 2006 by Zack Smith
You know, you can’t fake feel. One can replicate and imitate all day long, but in the end, we are (usually) happy victims of our geography. We are drawn to the music that rings most true for us, and often, if not always, that truth springs from the same places we do. We are made up of the soul of place and the spirits that inhabit it, whether we like it or not. And that soul shines most brightly through music.

This occurred to me (again) while ringing in the New Year with Galactic at Tipitina’s in New Orleans. As Galactic guests Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and Papa Mali guided me through the spirit world, one of those only-in-New-Orleans feelings crept over me.

I’d been thinking a lot about geography and the way certain music conjures images of its origins. Sure, a lot of it has to do with preconceptions, and some of those preconceptions may even be the result of some Hollywood-ized, sanitized versions that are buried deep within our memory. But, it’s more than that.

There are a slew of new albums that provide me with sparkling imagery to accompany some out-of-sight aural delights. Tishamingo‘s latest, The Point, sears images of Spanish moss in my brain. Is it just because I know they are an Athens-by-way-of-Tallahassee band? Why do I taste bourbon when I hear Jess Franklin play slide?

JJ Grey by Zach Mahone
Would JJ Grey & MOFRO‘s Country Ghetto make me think of Florida swamps if I didn’t know he was from Jacksonville? Does that explain the muggy feeling on the back of my neck when I hear that harmonica howl?

The aforementioned Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne’s newest creation, Do Your Thing, is another such animal. It evokes visions of Crescent City cemeteries and Mardi Gras Indian headdresses, while still throwing the occasional bovine skull into my mind’s eye.

To what extent are geography and its attendant imagery reflected in song? Not unexpectedly, Papa Mali thinks it might have something to do with the spirit world.

“I totally believe that there are spirits all around us,” Welbourne told me on a recent tour stop in Memphis. “You can travel around in the confidence and belief that everything can be explained logically. But, there’s this other world that exists whether you want to believe in it or not. It’s ancient and it is all around us. When I was young I used to feel like things were visiting me and showing me where to go and what paths to take.”

Papa Mali by Michael Weintrob
Welbourne was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi but grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, which is a pretty strange place. Tucked up in the northern part of the state, surrounded by Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas, Shreveport is something of a cultural anomaly. It sometimes seems as much Texas as it does Louisiana. It’s got a pinch of Arkansas and a dab of Mississippi. It’s not quite any of them though. It’s something in-between.

Despite the in-between upbringing, Papa Mali was always tied to New Orleans music through his frequent family visits there. Years later, he moved to Austin, Texas and played reggae music with the Killer Bees (where he earned his nickname from Burning Spear). Born in Mississippi. Raised in Louisiana. Cut his teeth in Texas. Playing reggae. And his music sounds like it.

As editor of a music magazine, I’m blessed (cursed?) with thousands of CDs coming across my desk each year. Few of those make it into my personal collection. Even fewer make their way into regular rotation. Papa Mali’s 2000 release, Thunder Chicken, is one of them. I still listen to it almost weekly. That record sounds like a mixture of Texas blues and New Orleans funk. It simultaneously conjures images of Lone Star barbeque shacks and bayou pirogues (helped in no small part by Papa Mali’s sordid and silly tale of the “Keep Happy Store”).

But that was more than six long years ago. It was a pre-9/11 world. I, and others, have been waiting not-so-patiently for the next installment. Why did it take so long between releases? Turns out the patient Papa was waiting for the stars to align just exactly right, and that meant hooking up with Thunder Chicken producer Dan Prothero again.

Prothero’s tactic in creating Do Your Thing was to involve representatives from the major music forms of New Orleans. Sousaphone player Kirk Joseph represents the brass band tradition. Henry Butler holds the flame for the legendary piano folks like Professor Longhair, James Booker, and Dr. John. And, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux represents the Mardi Gras Indian history.

Papa Mali by Josh Mintz
“[Dan] helps me to narrow down my scattered imagery to something that’s a little more focused and a little more to the bone,” says Welbourne. “It’s a nice relationship. I really trust that he’s going to make the right decision.”

I’m not sure exactly which spirits were guiding Papa Mali to this decision to hold out until the meticulous Prothero was available, but it was a kind, wise, and knowing spirit because it was well worth the wait. Do Your Thing is not just the title of Papa Mali’s new release – it’s a lesson and a mantra. It’s what he’s doing, even if he may have some guidance.

Maybe the secret to the inescapable imagery of geography is the spirits that feed us and teach us. Maybe it’s the spirit that exists in the soil and in the water and the food that we eat that comes from it. Maybe we just have to be careful to keep our door open.

The things that spring forth in our head when we listen to music may well come from movies we’ve watched and paintings we’ve seen. It could come from our dreams or maybe even from the place itself. Wherever they come from, you know you’re getting to the marrow when they’re traveling hand-in-hand.

For our next visit on the Rockin’ Chair, we’ll head to Georgia to hang with Tishamingo. ‘Til then, keep on rockin’.

JamBase | Mississippi
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