The Scorpions jazz band was formed in 1960. One of its late founders, Al Tayeb Rabeh, joined forces with his friend Amer Nasser to form The Scorpions, which continued to perform until the 1980s. Amer worked hard to become associated with the saxophone and his musical exploits. He was born in Idris in 1944 in the Mawreda neighbourhood, and received his education in Khelwa Kadh El Dam in El ‘Abassiya. His neighbour was Ali Al Rad, whose apartment was regarded as an artist hub. Amer would listen to the older musician’s songs and rehearse them on the sufaret-al-abnus. Amer was also influenced by brass instruments, which he would hear police and army bands play in El Mawarda park.
WTM – An interview, conducted by Ameen Rabih and Larissa Fuhrmann, can be read below. The album ‘Jazz Jazz Jazz’ is reissued by Habibi Funk Records (click here to go to their Bandcamp).
How did you get into being a professional musician and being part of The Scorpions since the group’s beginning?
“The first one with a style similar to ours was Sharhabeel; he was the first in Khartoum and Sudan. When we started we wanted to be like Sharhabeel. The band started as a group of friends, we collected instruments and stayed together most nights to play at wedding parties and at clubs as well as for television later on. While the weddings were private events you needed to buy tickets for our club gigs.
“For me personally meeting Louis Armstrong was an important moment. He was in Khartoum and played for seven nights in the National Theatre and I went there every night. I wanted to be like him. At some point after the show I went up to him and told him: “I want to be like you,” and I played for him on the trumpet that I had brought along. He said “Oh boy, you can play. Keep on playing.” From that time onwards I started to really focus on music and being in a band much more. At that time there were many bands coming from outside, from Germany, from Greece, the United States. We went to all of those parties to listen and learn.”
And how did you learn to play the instruments?
“There was a teacher of music in Khartoum from the military bands who we took lessons from. And as I mentioned we listened to many songs and music from outside. Back then at the cinema they brought movies from Europe and a lot of films shown in Sudan featured the famous bands of the time. We listened and then tried to play something similar, usually with instruments not so common in Sudan at the time: Saxophone, trumpet, flute, drums…”
So in the beginning you started with three people in the band…then you were five members?
“That’s right. We used to meet in Ameen’s house. He played guitar near Mutamar School. I played trumpet and we had a drummer. The founding members of The Scorpions were Quad, Mustafa, Ameen, Hamoud and myself. Two of them left the band early. After that on the guitar we had Salah Khalil and Mohamed Gibril. Many musicians from outside joined The Scorpions like Osman Zito from Congo. He lived in the South. A lot of musicians came from there. I met him in Juba when I was playing there. He had fled the war in Congo as a refugee to Sudan. He just passed away in Cairo not long ago. Anyhow, when we started we enjoyed performing and began to play at wedding parties and for the television. At that time there was only black and white TV station – Sudan TV. We played at night clubs, the big ones, the Arabic Club, the Greek Club and so on. We were the first Sudanese band who played in the big clubs for Christmas, NYE and other main festivities. We played there because every community had its own club e.g. German club, the Syrian club, the Greek club (which was called Apollo btw.). Right next to the Apollo Club near the bridge they opened the club Crazy Horse. Fadlalla Baraka owned the club and I had proposed him the initial idea. I told him to open a night club, a proper place for music. In the beginning we could use the space for rehearsals and in exchange we played for free. People were standing outside in line to see us and we got pretty popular. From then on, we started to sell tickets. And bands from outside Sudan started coming, for example from Ethiopia.”
And can you tell me about your journey to Kuwait?
“We went by ourselves and without visa but with the help of our friend Saif (who was also our singer during that stay). And we went there without instruments or anything. At the airport we arrived and waited for Saif to pick us up. Of course they asked us at the airport for our visas and who we were, but we replied not to have any. Saif wanted to help us to get in, so he called the son of the Prince who liked our music. Saif and him were friends. Following, the son of the Prince came in person and said: “These are my guests, give them visas.” This way, we entered the country and made a contract with the television. We went to the shops to buy instruments and from there straight to the TV. After getting paid by TV we went back to the shops to also pay the instruments. That was our first time in Kuwait. But we went once more. The second time we also had a contract with the Marriot Hotel; to us it looked like a ship. This time we had a visa and stayed for a long time. We had an organ player from Jordan and a guitar player from France.
“It was important for us to be able to play abroad because the situation in Sudan was changing drastically. When the Islamic rule came in 1983 under Numeiri all the Jazz musicians stopped public performances and the clubs were closed, so a lot of musicians left to Egypt. In the 1970s there were so many places like all the hotels, for example Kamal Keila was playing at the Blue Nile. First Numeiri liked the bands and supported them. He travelled with Kamal Keila and Balabil outside the country. But he changed. Things got political. So the bands from outside stopped coming.”
Besides Juba and Kuwait, where did you go?
“Beirut, Lebanon. We played there in the 1970s. I think it was after playing in Kuwait in 1972. With the whole band we played in hotels. Also we played in Nigeria and Tschad.”
Tell me a bit more about those journeys. How did they know about you to invite you in these countries?
“They usually listened to our music in Sudan when they came to visit. Then they invited us. There were many foreigners in Sudan. From the 1970s until the 80s this was the time of bands in Sudan.”
You went to a lot of concerts?
“My big brother took me with him since I was 13 to see many bands. Before Corinthia Hotel there was this place called The Zoo. A lot of bands played at The Zoo where they had a space for ceremonies. In Ramadan there would be special shows and jazz bands from outside would visit. Jimmy Cliff played in Sudan in 1985. He was having a stop-over from South Africa. They took him to the Meridian Hotel from the airport for one night. He heard there were people playing his music downstairs. The band obviously had no idea that Cliff would be in town. The funny thing was that he wanted to enter the space where they played the music, his music and he was asked to buy a ticket. At the door nobody recognised him but then the musicians saw him and invited him to come inside. In the end, he stayed for seven days and there were TV and radio broadcasts. They took him to Sheik Mohamed Alneel and he heard the rhythms of the Dhikr. When he went home to Jamaica he sent back a cassette playing a rhythm from the Dhikr. I still have the cassette. It was called Bango man. I have this cassette. I will play it for you someday.”
WTM – thanks to Will at In House Press for the interview resource.
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