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Published: 2000/06/15
by Rob Turner

Code Talking with the Colonel

Colonel Bruce Hampton is one of the most vital musicians in the jamband world. He has been performing music for over 35 years, and he has lived a thousand lifetimes. He is a man of wisdom, but he tempers it with a very down to Earth persona. He has a kind of lighthearted brilliance about him that makes you want to sit there and talk to him for days. He is also responsible for shining light on some of the most respected musicians on the scene today. Oteil Burbridge, Jimmy Herring, Rev. Jeff Mosier, and Jeff Sipe all achieved their initial notoriety from their association with The Colonel in the seminal jazz-rock-theatrical band Aquarium Rescue Unit which flourished in the nineties. The influence of this band is as great today as it ever was.

The Colonel’s influence stretches back to the sixties, when his bands Four of Nine and the the Hampton Grease Band each would travel around to stun music audiences nightly. His recent bands, Fiji Mariners and Planet Zambee, brought attention to more impressive musicians, most notably Dr. Dan Matrazzo and Barry Richman.

Colonel Bruce’s current band, The Code Talkers, may be the one to bring him the fame that he has seemed to intentionally avoid for all these years. I haven’t seen them since February, but reports of their recent performances indicate that this band will be a force in the second half of this year. Personally, I am particularly excited about the Colonel’s relatively new bandmate Bobby Lee Rodgers, who is a songwriter that will leave a large mark on the music world by the time he’s done, not to mention a smart and lively lead banjo/guitar player.

The Colonel truly plays music for the love of it, and he seems disinterested in, perhaps even aggravated by the fame that comes along with it. He generously let me pepper him with questions for as long as I wanted, even though he was about to head out to the Carolinas for a little vacation.

The upcoming Code Talkers shows include a rare trip back to Colorado to perform at the Gothic Theater in Englewood July 6, and the Fox Theater in Boulder July 8. The band will be joined by Oteil at these shows, and don’t be surprised if other big musicians show up to play! The Colonel doesn’t travel to the other side of the Mississippi much anymore, so I would highly recommend that the soulful Colorado folks make it out to catch the Colonel’s incredible new band.

RST – I was wondering if the name Code Talkers was influenced at all by the Navajo Indians who developed a code for our soldiers during…

CBH – ...No, not at all. But that’s been said by everybody who has asked. It has nothing to do with it. It’s a code we’ve established when we talk in the van. It’s like a language we have of our own. I mean you just get mental illness after you spend two weeks together or a week together. Most bands become mentally ill, and you start talking in code. Everything has a code. It just is our own way of speaking.

RST – I find it interesting nonetheless that when I read about these Navajo Indians known as “Code Talkers” and I find out that subtle shifts in nasality, tone, and pitch were used to affect the meaning of their codes, kind of like what happens when you’re singing.

CBH – It’s actually rather oblique stuff, and it’s just sort of like our inside joke. But that’s interesting, I don’t know that much about them other than what people have told me.

RST – Well you didn’t know much about Fiji before the Fiji Mariners, maybe you’ll.

CBH – Right! (laughs) You know they’re having a war there now.

RST – One last thing on the Navajos before we move on, you are known for your nicknames.

CBH – I’m the master of that; I do one thing well on this planet and that’s give good nicknames. Most people think Oteil’s a nickname, that’s what I find hilarious.

RST – His parents get credit for that one!

CBH – Yeah, his parents gave him that one (laughs), but everybody says I made it up which I feel honored about.

RST – Well the Navajo’s four rules for code words could just as easily be rules for your nicknames.

CBH – Tell me, tell me, tell me.

RST – The first is that they must have a logical connection to the actual word. They also must be unusually descriptive or creative to make memorization easier. The third is that they must be short.

CBH – Yep

RST – And the fourth they must avoid words that are confused with others.

CBH – Wow, I love that!

RST – So, where did you find Cheryl Renee (an amazing singer who has performed with Code Talkers recently)?

CBH – She’s in the Super Choir. She mostly does gospel music. She’s unknown to much of the world, but to me she’s the greatest singer who ever lived bar none. She’s just it. The Super Choir is the great gospel choir, led by Reverend Oliver Wells. I mean they tear down roofs. Houses tumble when they sing.

RST – Will she come on the road with you?

CBH – No, not until later. She’s got kids; it’s just too hard for her to tour right now. It’s also too hard for us; we’re traveling in a van. We don’t have the space right now. Later on, in the fall or something when the record comes out, we’ll get her to do a lot of Southern dates.

RST – And then there’s Nick Buda.

CBH – Nick Buda, yeah, better known as Zito.

RST – Did you dub him that?

CBH – Yeah, that’s his nickname.

RST – He’s from Capetown, South Africa?

CBH – Yeah, He’s from Capetown, South Africa via Boston (chuckles).

RST – Did you find him in the Boston music scene?

CBH – No actually Bobby Lee Rodgers found him. He had been in Boston for about four years and Bobby knew of him.

RST – From his Berklee days?

CBH – Right.

RST – And “Trombetta The Coconut Man” is that another nickname you came up with?

CBH – Yeah, and his real name is Ted Pecchio. He was playing in the funk scene. He’s played with Bernie Worrell and a bunch of other folks.

RST – And of course Reggie, (Wooten, guitarist and older brother of Victor) is he going to play more with you or was that just a “one off?”

CBH – Yep, he’s going to play more with us, just when he’s available. He’s one of the masters of guitar, if not the master of guitar. He taught Victor Wooten, Jimmy Herring, and Oteil Burbridge.

RST – And like Jimmy, he can play very fast without sounding gratuitous, and still play clean.

CBH – Yes, he plays fast… blinding speed! Yeah.

RST – I am knocked over impressed with mate Bobby Lee Rodgers. I had no idea he worked with Sting, when did he do that?

CBH – I don’t know the years. He also worked with McCoy Tyner and The Heath Brothers. I don’t know the years, but I think he played a number of gigs with him. I don’t think he worked with Sting on a regular basis.

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