Victor Olaiya goes with his trumpet
On May 7, 2020, the remains of Victor Olaiya was laid to rest at a private cemetery in Ikoyi, Lagos. The legendary highlife musician died on February 12, 2020 at 89 years after over six decades of successful music career.
The burial, attended by family members and few friends was void of the usual fanfare for a musician of Olaiya’s calibre all because of the social distancing occasioned by Coronavirus pandemic.
However, Olaiya, a bandleader and business mogul, who was famous for playing his trumpet in highlife style, has truly gone with his trumpet.
Born Victor Abimbola Olaiya on December 31, 1930, Olaiya, who retired from the music scene in February 2017 due to his failing health, was one of the pioneers of the Nigerian highlife music with six decades of successful career to his credit. Before his death, he was Nigeria’s leading star of highlife’s golden years of the 50 s and early 60’s
He was one of Nigeria’s brightest musical stars, with a career that included performing at the state ball during Nigeria’s independence in 1960, in the presence of Tafawa Balewa, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Sir James Robertson, the governor general and representative of the Queen, among other dignitaries. He also performed at the state ball three years later when Nigeria became a republic.
Trailing his journey in the music world, Olaiya toed the line of the likes of Fela Anikulapo Kuti who followed their passion against their parents’ wishes and society expectations.
In 1951, he was accepted by Howard University in the United States of America to study Civil Engineering, instead he pursued a career as a musician, to the disapproval of his parents.
But if his parents were keen observers, they would have recognised his passion earlier because at an early age he learned to play the Bombardon and the French Horn.
He played with the Sammy Akpabot Band, he was the leader and trumpeter for the Old Lagos City Orchestra and joined the Bobby Benson Jam Session Orchestra. In 1954, he formed Cool Cats, his own band, which he renamed All Stars Band when they played at the 1963 International Jazz Festival in Czechoslovakia.
His music was influenced by the horns and harmonies of James Brown. Over the course of his career, he released an album with the E T Mensah, shared a stage with Louis Armstrong, and impacted the styles of Fela Kuti and Tony Allen.
Olaiya, who was both singer and trumpeter, was famous for hit songs and albums such as ‘ Baby Jowo’, ‘Feso J’aiye’, ‘Ilu Le O’ and ‘Taxi Driver’.
The new generation of highlife lovers connected with him in July 2013, when Olaiya released a music video remix of Baby Jowo (Baby Mi Da) with 2Baba (Innocent Idibia) and was received with much acclaim.
Explaining love for highlife and outlook for the music genre, in an interview with the Vanguard Newspaper in 2014, Olaiya said, “Highlife has a great future, because for it I live, for it I shall die. There is no gain saying everybody wants to talk about highlife. Highlife is the lingua franca of this nation. Fuji, reggae, afro beat, juju, all of them had to borrow a leaf or two from highlife to enable them to stand. So, it still remains the lingua franca of this nation and no type of music can threaten the existence of highlife music.”
As well, many in his heyday attested to his creative ingenuity, great stage performance and mastering of his craft. One of his great reviews was from Alade Odunewu of the Daily Times who styled him the ‘Evil Genius of Highlife’.
“They thought I moved highlife music out of the ordinary. Then, it was believed that my Highlife was a little bit out of this world, beyond explanation. This was why Alhaji Alade Odunewu of the Daily Times styled me the Evil Genius of Highlife”, Olaiya said some years back while alive.
Moreover, most fans love Olaiya’s music because the tracks were enriched with educative lyrics and beats that make you move gently. They will continue to appreciate his evergreen music.
In its condolence message, Premier Records Limited, the record label that produced all his great hits, described the music legend as a man of irreplaceable values and talent.
According to Michael Odiong, general manager, Premier Records Limited, his values will live forever as he had left an indelible mark as the father of contemporary highlife music in Nigeria. “He was a complete Nigerian who was born in Calabar, schooled in the East, performed in the North and settled in the West. He spoke Igbo, Efik and Hausa fluently”, Odiong said. “He was a man on a mission whenever he climbed the stage to perform, his mission was always to deliver excellent performance. He was the only Nigerian musician to have performed at the ball for the Queen of England during Independence in 1960 and in 1963 when Nigeria became a republic. Both occasions saw the Queen dancing to his songs. We are looking at the possibilities of doing so many things that will immortalize him, we cannot reveal that now but we are working on them”.
According to Ayo Sadare, CEO, Inspiro Productions, organisers of Lagos Jazz Festival, Victor Olaiya was undoubtedly the doyen of highlife music in Nigeria and Africa.
“His songs were classic and have now become African Highlife/ Jazz standards. We at Inspiro Productions/ NAIJAZZ had always desired to have him headline at The Lagos International Jazz Festival but that didn’t materialise, but we were honoured to celebrate him at his Stadium Hotel base in 2013 alongside a few younger Nigerian Jazz & Highlife musicians”, he said.
The .Jazz promoter noted further that Nigeria and the world may have lost a veritable cultural ambassador and legend, but his legacy, which is his music, remains with us.
Also, his fans will truly miss his performances at the Stadium Hotel Surulere, which he built as a base for his music and support for upcoming musicians. During his heyday, it was most exciting watching him blow his trumpet and sing his heart out at his own celebrated hotel.
With his death, Olaiya has joined the league of African music legends that passed away in recent time. It would be recalled that Manu Dibango, a Cameroonian music legend, died in Paris on March 24, 2020 at 86 years, while Tony Allen, Fela’s drummer, composer, songwriter, died in Paris at 79 on March 30, 2020.