On the 12th of February, at exactly twelve noon, Victor Abimbola Olaiya OON, iconic highlife maestro, trumpeter and vocalist breathed his last. Cause of death remains unknown but according to Bimbo Esho, managing director of Evergreen Music Company Ltd, the label that published Olaiya’s music, this development occurred at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital Idi Araba.
He was 89 years old.
Until his death Dr Victor Olaiya was a proponent and ambassador of highlife, a genre of music with origins in Ghana that fuses traditional Akan melodies with Western instruments. He often described highlife as the lingua franca of the nation considering its widespread acceptance along both francophone and Anglophone regions.
In a statement from the Presidency, Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina paid tribute to Olaiya, noting that his “place in history is guaranteed.” Former vice president, Atiku Abubakar on his Twitter feed, went down memory lane noting of Olaiya’s musical skill, “His artful delivery on the trumpet and his hits from the 50s are moments we would never forget.’’ Sir Ebenezer Obey described Olaiya as ‘’a very serious-minded person who projected highlife music throughout the entire world” while drummer, Ara described him as “a role model and a music legend.”
In a career that spanned over 60 years- he celebrated the three score milestone on stage with a music concert in 2012- Victor Olaiya released countless hit singles and albums, many of which have achieved classic status. Some of his most enduring anthems include Omo Pupa, Awa De, Ilu Le O as well as the original composition of Easy Motion Tourist– originally titled Epe Nmadu Epe– made famous years later by King Sunny Ade.
In 2004, a new generation was introduced to Olaiya’s iconic sound when 2face Idibia- now 2Baba- dueted with Olaiya on the Spinlet produced Baby Mi Da (Baby Jowo). The melodious duet is a remake of the song that would eventually rival Omo Pupa for elevated status as Olaiya’s signature tune.
The glossy music video for Baby Mi Da, directed by no other than Kunle Afolayan had an older but clearly still energetic Olaiya performing to a small crowd that included Tunde Kelani and actor Fabian Adeoye Lojede. His buoyant dance steps had an excited 2Baba chiming, “E still dey body!”
Bogged down by old age and medical infirmities, Olaiya eventually had to step down from active live performances including his regular weekly gig at his Stadium hotel, Iyun street, Surulere circa 2015.
Born December 31, 1930, in Calabar, capital of Cross River State to the family of Alfred Omolona Olaiya and Bathsheba Owolabi Motajo of Ijesha-Ishu, Ondo state, Victor was the 20th in a family with 24 offspring. Music ran in the family as his father was a church organist while the mother was a traditional cultural band leader.
He attended missionary schools in Owerri and Onitsha. While in school, Olaiya learnt to play the Bombardon and the French horn which later metamorphosed into the B flat trumpet. Because of his introduction to various cultures, Olaiya spoke Igbo, Itsekiri, Hausa and Yoruba fluently and often recorded songs in these languages.
Olaiya, nicknamed Papingo Davalaya came from a wealthy and influential family. His father’s house, Ilọjọ Bar was a Brazilian-styled historic building located on Bamgbose street, Lagos Island, originally built to operate as a bar andrestaurant in 1855.
Ilojo Bar was purchased by Alfred Omolana Olaiya in 1933 and was declared a national monument in 1956 by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments. Unfortunately, it was demolished under controversial circumstances in 2016 despite efforts to save it.
After leaving school, Olaiya moved to Lagos, where he passed the school certificate examination in 1951 and was accepted by Howard University to study civil engineering. Like Fela Anikulapo Kuti, another rebel with whom Olaiya frequently came into contact with- “He (Fela) came to join my band where he learnt to play the B-flat trumpet, ” Olaiya chose instead to pursue a career as a musician, to the consternation of his parents.
Victor Olaiya played with the Lagos Street Brass Band in 1947 on a salary of one shilling and six pence before joining the Sammy Akpabot Sextet All Stars where he served as leader and trumpeter for the Old Lagos City Orchestra. Olaiya would eventually move to the Bobby Benson Jam Session Orchestra where he eventually cut his teeth in his preferred musical genre. He would focus on playing the trumpet early on in his career but had to include vocals too when it became clear he could not depend on his bandmates.
In 1954, Olaiya formed his own band, the Cool Cats and their brand of highlife music quickly became popular, sweeping the airwaves and the nightlife scene. His golden years coincided with a period when Nigeria was going through major political upheavals.
Olaiya’s band was chosen to play at the state ball when Queen Elizabeth II visited Nigeria in 1956. He also played at the celebration of Nigeria’s independence in 1960, performing new music to an audience that included Nnamdi Azikiwe and Tafawa Balewa. And he was right there three years later, when Nigeria became a republic. His band was renamed the All-Stars Band after participating in the 1963 International Jazz Festival in Czechoslovakia.
Music may have been his ultimate calling, but Olaiya also worked as a civil servant, at the topographical and lithographical section of the department of lands and survey. He moved to the Lagos Town Council Municipal treasurer’s department where he was in charge of cost and works ledger.
At the height of his fame, Olaiya was as influential an artiste as any of his era. He performed with American Louis Armstrong and was a former president of the Nigerian Union of Musicians. His most prolific years were in the sixties, a period that saw him release numerous singles, some of which have been reissued over the years. Olaiya was named a honorary lieutenant colonel in the Nigerian army during the civil war. His band played for the Nigerian troops at several locations.
The evil genius of highlife
Highlife is widely believed to have originated in British Empire occupied Ghana early in the 20th century before travelling down to Nigeria where it was embraced particularly in the south. Olaiya played a pivotal part in making highlife a national favorite. In an interview with Vanguard newspaper, Olaiya acknowledged his pioneering contributions to the music genre he describes as “the lingua franca of West Africa’’ but he also insisted that highlife was in existence long before he was born.
He credits Ghanaian legend E.T Mensah for popularizing highlife in these parts but stressed that no one could really take full credit for discovering highlife music. Olaiya and Mensah would eventually work on a joint album titled, Hi Life Giants of Africa. On the record, the more versatile Mensah handled the musical harmony while he left the arrangement to Victor Olaiya. He was dubbed the “evil genius of highlife” by prolific newspaper man Alade Odunewu
A polygamist, Olaiya is survived by his wives, children and grandchildren. One of his daughters, Moji Olaiya, was a Nollywood actress who passed away in 2017, two months after she welcomed a baby. He would also influence about a half dozen of his children to play music as well although none of them would enjoy the success that Olaiya did.
Olaiya remained passionate about highlife music till the end of his life. In many ways, it was what he knew best even after several attempts at various other businesses. He explained the challenge with performing Highlife in a 2012 interview, “I think Highlife is not an easy music to play. It is not like Fuji or Apala where you can just get one or two people together and start praise-singing. In Highlife, you have to employ some technical instruments like the trumpet, saxophone (tenor and alto) and others.”
Victor Olaiya gave the music his all, employing his trumpet, his voice and his writing talent. It is hard to imagine Highlife being the same without him.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.