Jazz Jazz Jazz: The History Of The Scorpions
“The Scorpions“ is the name of the band that achieved a high status within the music scene, becoming a real competitor to multiple bands, including Sharhabeel Ahmed. They successfully presented showband songs, and in my opinion, they could have successfully maintained their activity until today if they would have had reverted to Sudanese songs from the outset of their musical career. The thing I like the most about this band is the dedication to the music and the strong work ethic of its band members, which resulted in their firm status within the Sudanese music scene.
The Scorpions Jazz band was formed in 1960. One of its late founders, Al Tayeb Rabeh, had a strong passion for the arts from a young age. He began his musical studies at the American School and continued until high school. His introduction to music began with the sufaret-al-abnus (a traditional reed instrument), followed by the guitar, which was one of the more rare instruments at the time. He was one of the first Sudanese to play the guitar. He made some changes to it, i.e. adding speakers in an attempt to build an electric guitar, as was the case with several other musicians who followed Jazz music and were influenced by Jazz and Rock at the time. It was his idea to form a rock’n roll band, which was an impossible thing to do at the time due to the difficulty in getting the required instruments. But thanks to his and his friend Amer Nasser’s efforts, whom he met during that time, they were able to form this band, The Scorpions, which continued to perform until the ‘80s. Amer Nasser’s story is a story of struggle and strife, and his name became associated with the saxophone because of his immense love and passion for it. Amer’s relationship with the saxophone is a long one, filled with hardship, commitment and dedication.
Amer Nasser was born in Idris in 1944 in the Mawreda neighbourhood, and received his education in Khelwa Kadh El Dam in El ‘Abassiya. Since being a little child, he had the urge to create music. He started his musical journey with the mizmar (another traditional reed instrument), which he made himself. Then he moved on to playing some melodies on the sufaret-al-abnus (reed instrument). His neighbour was Ali Al Rad, one of the oldest musicians, 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. He was also influenced by brass instruments, which he would witness police and army bands play in El Mawarda park. Amer was fascinated by the sight of brass instruments, and was particularly intrigued by the sound of the trumpet.
He joined Ma’ahad-al-qersh (Al Qersh Institute) and began his studies in music with the clarinet, which he eventually mastered. Despite his young age, he became one of the most talented clarinet players. In the ‘60s, famous American jazz musician Louis Armstrong visited Sudan and performed at the National Theatre in Omdurman. Amer attended that concert and was amazed by his performance. Consequently, he switched to playing the trumpet. During his stay in Sudan, Armstrong visited Ma’ahad-al-qersh (Al Qersh Institute). The Institute’s student band, that Amer was a member of, performed a few pieces for Armstrong. Armstrong was impressed by the band’s talent, and specifically by Amer, whose hand he shook and whom he congratulated and invited – along with his band – to a second concert that took place at the National Theatre. This encounter pushed Amer to train even harder until he became one of the leading trumpet players in Sudan.
In 1965 Amer met his friend, Al Tom Al Aqili who studied mechanics at Ma’ahad-al-qersh (Al Qersh Institute). He was the one to introduce Amer to Al Tayeb Rabeh who was, at the time, in the process of forming a jazz band and was looking for good musicians. Amer was pleased to hear this, so he coordinated with Al Tom to meet Al Tayeb Rabeh. The following day Amer rode his motorcycle and took his trumpet, borrowed from the institute, and drove to Ay Bant, located east to Al Tayeb Rabeh’s house. Amer recalls Al Tayeb playing his classical guitar, to which he had added radio speakers. Amer was impressed by his idea to turn the normal guitar into an electric one. “We had a small jam session, with Al Tayeb on the guitar, Al Tom on the bongos and myself on the trumpet. It was on the back of a boat by the Nile. This was our first jam session which also marked the launch of The Scorpions. After a significant amount of time jamming together, we found ourselves musically and dynamically in sync. We were very much influenced by Sharhabeel, who was an established musician at the time, and we thought of forming a band similar to his. Vocalist Abbas Darrag from El ‘Abassiya, who strongly resembled Sharhabeel in both appearance and voice, joined as singer and guitarist. From then on, we would often perform concerts in the El Abassiya area. Audiences thought we were Sharhabeel’s band.”
The band faced several difficulties in attaining certain instruments, especially the drums, which were rare to find and very expensive. Thus they thought of making their own local drum set. They set out to the industrial area with a picture of a drum set and managed to find a blacksmith whom they asked to construct one extremely similar to the imported one. In the beginning, the big drum shell turned to be a little problematic but they came up with the idea to go to the tanneries and buy a big piece of leather to attach to the shell. Now they only had to find a drummer. Finally, they turned to Fouad Alama, who was originally a tabla & darbuka player in Ma’ahad-al-qersh (Al Qersh Institute), whom they taught how to play the drum kit. A percussionist called Hamoudy also joined them. After a while they decided to add a double-bass, which Amer constructed himself, given his experience in carpentry. Two more members joined the band: Hassan Othman on the accordion and Tayouba, one of the most famous dancers of the time. As previously mentioned, the band members were a big fans of Sharhabeel’s band and especially drawn to the saxophone, which in Sharhabeel’s band was played by Mr. Kamel Hussein. The Scorpions wanted to reach his level, especially since the saxophone was dominating the music scene at that time. They were equally fascinated by Ethiopian saxophone player Ghita Shoua, who was a member of the band of the Emperor Haile Selassie. Shoua charmed audiences with his talent, especially when he played folkloric tunes on his saxophone. As Amer once made his way home from one of his concerts, he realized that his only concern was how to get his hands on that instrument.
He was informed by a friend that there was a big stock of brass instruments at the Mo’tamar High School. After several attempts, he managed to befriend the person in charge of guarding the room with all the instruments. He became aware of Amer's passion and obsession with the saxophone, so he allowed him to practice several hours a day after the school band’s rehearsals. After daily practice and increased hours of training, he finally mastered it.
The band members were convinced of the necessity of adding the sax to The Scorpions and with luck they found an old one in Werthan music stores in Gomhorreya Street, which they bought and fixed. The band now consisted of the following members: Al Tayeb Rabeh on guitar, Amer Nasser on saxophone and trumpet, Abbas Darras on vocals, Fouad Alama on drums, Hamoudy on contrabass, Hassan Othman on accordion and finally, there was Tayouba as the dancer and percussionist.
Initially, the band was called Jazz Band. They managed to draw a lot of attention because of their analogy to Sharhabeel’s band, given the kind of songs they performed and the resemblance in voice and appearance of their vocalist Abbas Darrag. They later changed the band’s name to Ferqet Layali Al ‘Assema (The Nights of the Capital Band) and grew in popularity, which angered Sharhabeel’s band.
Following the band’s fame, Sharhabeel filed a lawsuit against them through his attorney Mo’atassem Al Naqlawi, claiming that he had been harmed by the harassment of his tradition. Amer remembers: “The judge issued a court order to stop copying him immediately and ordered us to exhibit good conduct for six months, which was to be one of the first artistic verdicts by a Sudanese court.”
Eventually Sharhabeel empathized with them and told them he only wished for them to forge their own path, to be a band with its own unique sound and create their own artistic identity. He was willing to offer all kinds of artistic support for them in order to achieve this despite the fact that they had harmfully affected him before. After having stopped presenting songs by Sharhabeel, they attempted to only perform original compositions but were unsuccessful. Shortly after, a man named Alfonse who was of Greek origin living in Khartoum and who used to cover The Beatles’ songs in the Greek community’s clubs appeared. Alfonse was the band's gateway for emancipating from Sharhabeel’s songs and their ticket to the big clubs in Khartoum such as the Greek Club, the Armenian Club and the Italian Club. Additional members joined the band during that time. These were: Hassan Othman, accordionist, Mohamed Gebril, bassist, who was previously part of the infamous Adwa’a Bahary (Sea Lights) band. Moreover, Mohamed and Awad Khattab joined as the band’s comedians, and would perform sketches. As the band prospered, they bought new instruments and incorporated a uniform. The band in part became famous for its Western singing because of its performances at the various clubs and hotels, frequented mostly by foreigners and diplomats. The Scorpions would cover, for example, songs from The Beatles, Wilson Becket and other Western hits of that time, in addition to Amer’s saxophone rendition of internationally well-known titles. The Scorpions’ widespread fame in Khartoum led to a lot of media attention and secured them a slot on the popular show “Taht Al Adwa” (In The Spotlight) with famous TV show host Hamdy Boulad.
Following the work-related immigration of Al Tayeb Rabeh to Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, a new band member came to replace him, namely guitarist Salah Khalil from the Jazz El Nessr band. And another member joined; Kamal Abdel Rahman who was known for singing Sudanese songs e.g. ‘Hegran’, ‘Ya Amali’, and ‘Bayn Ganayen El Shate’, that era’s biggest hit, which The Scorpions later rearranged and performed. At the height of their success, The Scorpions appeared on the Ahl El Fann TV show, presented by host Khogly Salheen.
Thanks to the Ministry of Media, they were able to go on tour in Sudan. Their first trip was to the town of Goba, where they performed for soldiers who -to their surprise- gave them one of the warmest receptions. During their multiple concerts in Goba, they had a really strong audience interaction, as they all loved the kind of music the band played. On the band's way back to Khartoum, Congolese bassist Othman Zeito joined the band. He would later become one of the most famous bass players of that era.
When the band had reached its peak in the 1970s. They decided it was about time to have a residency at a concert hall of their own, a common practice with bands around the world. The Crazy Horse Hall, where they performed on a regular from then on, would owe its establishment and fame to The Scorpions. It was through this hall that other bands made a name for themselves, as the venue would organize band competitions and host music festivals. The Scorpions were one of the first bands to participate in these festivals along with several other jazz bands. In this course, Amer was entitled “Prince of Jazz” after Sharhabeel, known as the “King of Jazz.” The Scorpions also took part in the first edition of Mahragan Al Ghena’i Al Musiqi Al Ghena’i Festival in 1975 at the National Theatre in Omdurman under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. Other bands in the festival included Al Modara’at Jazz Band, Kamal Keila’s band and Jazz Police Railway Atbara. The Scorpions joined, comprising the following members: Amer Nasser on the flute, Salah Bashir as lead guitar, Othman Zeito on Bass, Adel Wenget on the drums.
That night the Scorpions performed two songs composed by Amer Nasser, ‘Amal’ and ‘Hegran’, which he played on the flute. The audience, which had never before heard the flute in Jazz music, was fascinated by the performance and asked for several encores. The festival administration gave The Scorpions an honorary award. They also participated in the second Culture Festival, headed by Jaafar Mohamed Namiri, at Khartoum stadium along with 13 other Jazz bands. Amer Nasser was chosen to be the saxophonist of The National Jazz Band including the biggest Jazz musicians: Sharhabeel, Kamal Keila, Mostafa Qesm Allah and others. The band performed as the finale of the festival at the Sadaqa Hall in Khartoum.
In the period that followed, The Scorpions traveled to Kuwait and signed a one-year contract with one of its casinos. The band came back after that to continue performing in The Crazy Horse Hall. Additional band members joined during that period, including famous organ player and keyboardist Salah Othman, who used to perform with the radio station’s jazz band. Thanks to Othman, several classic Sudanese songs were rearranged and modernized by The Scorpions, including the very popular “Al Habib Ouein” by famous artist Al Kasheq.
In 1980 The Scorpions toured Kuwait together with Saif Abu Bakr. They performed in many venues including the Hilton Hotel, the Sheraton Hotel, the Marriott Hotel and several Sudanese clubs. The band also performed a couple of their titles on Kuwaiti radio stations. Returning from their trip, they continued to perform in the Happy Land Hall of the Green Village Hotel until 1983….
Interview with Ameer Nasser
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 7 nights in the National Theater 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 3 people in the band…then you were 5?
That’s right. We used to meet in Ameen’s house. He played guitar near Mutamar School. Amir 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, e.g. 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. Seif 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 e.g., Kamal Keila he was playing at the “Blue Nile”. First Numeiri liked the bands and supported them. He traveled 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 recognized him but then the musicians saw him and invited him to come inside. In the end, he stayed for 7 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.
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