With the death on Wednesday of Sir Victor Abimbola Olaiya at 89, the curtains have fallen on an era of highlife music, Yinka Olatunbosun writes
Sir Victor Olaiya’s journey into highlife music began with his abandonment of the offer of a degree programme in civil engineering at Howard University in the US to pursue music. His parents didn’t find his decision funny. This was especially so since they considered music a mere pastime and not a lucrative career.
His path to stardom was in the 1950s with the likes of Emmanuel Tettey Mensah and Bobby Benson holding sway. First as a trumpeter with Sammy Akpabot’s band and the 11-piece band – the Bobby Benson Jam Session Orchestra which panned out as the platform of growth for many Nigerian Highlife musicians – he later became a maestro with a massive followership.
A revered music critic and the first music manager for Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Benson Idonije recalled in his book, Dis Fela Sef that Olaiya was a dominant figure in Lagos music scene just at Eddie Okonta was in Ibadan. Fela was one of Olaiya’s mentees as a young trumpeter who enjoyed his music tutelage with Olaiya’s music band, The Cool Cats. Olaiya remained the toast of music fans even in the face of stiff competition from the likes of Roy Chicago, Adeolu Akinsanya, E. T Mensah’s Tempos Band and other Ghanaian bands that were signed to Decca West Africa. Olaiya’s lyrical compositions were mostly rendered in Yoruba language that conveyed hit songs like “Iye Jamila,” “Sisi Yen”, “Omo Pupa” and “So fun mi.” His music contemporaries include Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson, whose music transported the rhythms and melodies of the Abonema people from Rivers State.
As a choice band of the period founded by a true virtuoso, Olaiya’s band was chosen to play at the state ball when Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom visited Nigeria in 1956, and later to play at the state balls when Nigeria became independent in 1960 and when Nigeria became a republic in 1963. In addition, Olaiya shared the stage with the American jazz musician, Louis Armstrong.
Perhaps, Sir Victor Olaiya cheated death during the Nigerian civil war era because most of the highlife bands of the period which were of Yoruba extraction were conscripted into the army. Benson Idonije, further recounted under the subheading, “The Civil War Years” that the political climate of the period took its toll on the cultural landscape with a thinned nightlife. He noted that “Lagos was entirely rid of highlife musicians as a result of the mass exodus” as bands were recruited to entertain Nigerian soldiers at the war fronts. And so was Olaiya’s All-star band- a fact that contributed to the wane of highlife music at the period to give rise to other music genres such as juju and Afrobeat.
Olaiya renamed his band as All Stars Band when they performed at the 1963 International Jazz Festival in Czechoslovakia. Olaiya also ran a business that imported and distributed musical instruments and accessories throughout West Africa and established the Stadium Hotel in Surulere. The Founder, JazzVille, a former jazz club in Yaba, Mayowa Majekodunmi, in his tribute, spoke on the impact of Olaiya’s music at the period.
“I grew up listening to this wonderful doyen of highlife in the mid 60’s, when l came back from England where my dad worked at the Nigerian High Commission,” he recalled. “At that time l had a strong and passionate love for all kinds of music from classical to pop and from jazz to highlife. Sir Victor Olaiya was one of my favourites along with other acts like IK Dairo, Dele Ojo, Uwaifo and many more. Olaiya however topped the list. I visited his Stadium Hotel once in a while during my ‘pub crawling’ days and it was always a thrill to see him perform. It always brought back memories of my childhood. It’s a sad loss to our music culture indeed.”
Olaiya’s music remained very influential in Nigeria’s contemporary music scene as his classic, “Mofe Muyon” is one of the most covered songs in the history of highlife in Nigeria. Art Alade, Lieutenant Shot Gun, Tade Ogidan’s Nollywood All Stars and 2Baba are some of the popular artists with commercially successful remixes of the song renamed, “Baby Jowo” which ranks as one of the best love songs of the century.
His music collaborator and , Innocent Idibia better known as 2Baba also took to the social media to express his grief at the loss of this music giant.
“I am devastated by the news of your passing. Dr. Victor Olaiya – maestro, mentor, legend; Thanks for the beautiful music. Thanks for the inspiration. Blessed for the honour of sharing a mic and stage with you. Rest in peace baba,” he tweeted.
For the Founder, Lagos International Jazz Festival, Ayoola Shadare, Olaiya’s legacy will never be forgotten.
“Olaiya was a living African Music legend,” he said. “Called the ‘evil’ genius of highlife music, his passing although sad is a celebration of life. He lived till a ripe old age unusual for people in his line of business. His impact and influence on Nigerian and African music is undeniable. He held and wore his genre highlife like a badge of honour. It’s noteworthy that in the early days a lot of other Nigerian greats like Fela Kuti and Tony Allen played with this Titan. I am happy that we at Inspiro and Naijazz Music were able to celebrate him about seven years ago at his popular Stadium hotel. His legacy is inerasable and Nigeria has indeed lost a mega icon in him but his music remains with us.”
According to the statement issued by Bimbo Esho, the managing director of Evergreen Music Company Ltd, Olaiya took the final bow at the Lagos University Teaching hospital(LUTH), Lagos State at 12noon on Wednesday February 12 at the age of 89.
A seasoned music journalist and a member of the Felabration Organising Committee, Abdul Okwechime, described Olaiya as the last of his generation. “He spanned over generations. He was irresistible. Even the legendary Fela cut his teeth with his band. That is how awesome he strode the Nigeria music firmament. Mega respect to a great hornsman- an accomplished musician,” he said.
Olaiya had many wives and children including the late actress, Moji Olaiya who died in 2017 in Canada just two months after she gave birth to her second child.