BY Emmanuel Edukugho & Kehinde Ajose
Dr. Victor Abimbola Olaiya will be 84 years old on December 31,2014. He was born in Ijesha-Isu, Ikole Local Government Area, Ekiti. His father was a church organist while the mother was a traditional cultural band leader. They did not oppose his interest in music, but rather tried to be source of inspiration to him. He learnt to play E-Flat French horn, the B-Flat trumpet after leaving Africa School, Onitsha and came to Africa College also in Onitsha.
Due to the sporadic movement of his father’s job, the young Victor had to come to Lagos to complete his secondary education. In Lagos he played with a street Brass Band in 1947 on a salary of one Shilling and six Pence. Then he moved to Sam Akpabot’s Sextet all Stars, and by 1949 he was invited to establish the Ritz Tempo Orchestra. He kept moving later from one band to another.
At Ritz, he was band leader, soloist first trumpeter and vocalist. From a band in Yaba at Rex Club owned by Mr. Alfred Rewane, he joined late Bobby Benson and led his second band with outings at Yaba Ambassador Hotel for a few years.
Victor Olaiya initially began his working life at the topographical and lithographical section of the Department of Lands and Survey, Lagos. After three years, he transferred his services to the Lagos Town Council Municipal Treasurer’s Department and was in charge of Cost and Works Ledger. But all that time, he remained married to music as part-time. As part of our Independence anniversary special cover that we started last week we approached Victor Olaiya to tell us about music of the past and now
Very very correct, I played at the state ball.
What was the event like and who were those present on that independence day ball?
I wish I can remember all those that were present but I know that Tafawa Balewa was present, then Nnamdi Azikwe was present, and the last Governor General representing the queen, Sir James Robertson was very much present . My band played at that state ball not only at the state ball but also three years after when Nigeria was attaining the republican status, my band also played .All the ministers available at that time were present
Like Late TOS Benson?
Yes, late TOS Benson was present. He was minister at that time .The state ball took place at the Federal palace hotel banquet hall
How was the event? What was the feelings like at that time?
As young as I was then, I felt it was a lifetime opportunity for me to grace such an occasion and it was graced by all other African heads of states
What made the government pick you out of the bunch of other highlife stars at that time to perform at the state ball?
At that time, quite frankly, I was the talk of the town. I was unchallenged. I was supreme. I think the minister for information was J.M Johnson, he was there and he nominated my band .All functions including the beauty pageants, Miss Nigeria, it was Victor Olaiya that performed. I stood tall.
Can you recall some of the tunes you rendered that day?
I had a composition specially for that day. I composed a song for the independence ball for that occasion. The governor general then, Sir James Robertson and the representative of the Queen, Tafawa Balewa walked up to me while they were dancing and had an handshake with me and we also had a small talk with me while the music was going on .I considered it the height of my success.
How did highlife come to Nigeria because we learnt that you brought it from Ghana. Is that correct?
That is not correct . But I accept that Late E.T. Mensah, my professional colleague then had to come and popularize it more in Nigeria .But highlife had been in existence before I, Victor Olaiya, was born. .Nobody can take the monopoly of highlife music .In my own opinion, it is the Lingua Franca of west Africa .It depicts the culture of West African countries.
English speaking West African Countries?
It’s not only English speaking because States like Guinea, Ivory coast, Cotonou and Togo, Congo play high life but in different dimensions
Why were you called the evil genius of highlife?
I think that was a name that was bestowed on me by late Alhaji Alade Odunewu of Daily Times because everywhere I played was always jam packed and he said something extra ordinary must be in that music that I dish out and he felt the best description he could give me as at that time is the evil genius of highlife music
The popular tune Bonsue, did it originate from Ghana or from Nigeria?
It originated from Ghana without prejudice but I have my own version of Bonsue which is peculiar to us in Nigeria.
What was your relationship with Rex Lawson and E.T Mensah?
Rex Lawson was a member of my band. We played in my band. He passed through me. Then after he played with me, he went to Ghana, came back, and then succeeded in creating a sound which was acceptable by the generality of highlife fans in Nigeria and west coast and then he gained his freedom as well as popularity. He was a very good professional colleague. Then King E.T Mensah, as I usually call him, and I were called the highlife giants of Africa .We styled it .He was a much elderly fellow. He came to Nigeria and ‘scattered’ the whole place with his style of Ghanaian highlife music. Everywhere went haywire. Thereafter, the idea of both of us coming together came up and arranging a highlife album which we named and styled Hi Life Giants of Africa. . He was a great man and he managed at that time to play the saxophone and the trumpet but I only played the trumpet.
When we came together to release this album, he handled the musical harmony while he left the arrangement to Victor Olaiya because he was very much gifted in musical harmony .He ravaged the whole of west Africa with his highlife style-the Ghanaian style of highlife music. It was by God’s grace that I managed to stop him from coming to Nigeria. He would have packed the whole money away from Nigeria.
Then I had to go to Ghana where my music became acceptable to the Ghanaians and it was at that instance he decided to approach me to release an album comprising of his own top highlife tunes and my own top highlife tunes .it was here we did the rehearsals. We managed to popularize it, went to the studio, arranged, composed and did everything. It was accepted by the general music populace
Coming down to the modern era now, we learnt that you did a collabo with Tuface?What informed that collaboration?
Well it was not my original idea. It was an idea suggested by Premiere recording company .We were trying to do something of that nature in the highlife all stars club wish we formed years ago .While we were contemplating, the premiere musical company came up with the idea, and we gave it a trial. Tuface is such a gifted young boy that I like. He respects people especially the elderly very highly. He is gifted musically. During the trial, I discovered a number of talents which this guy has including respectability for elder musicians. He is a wonderful boy .As providence will have it, we gave it a trial and it came out successful. The song has become the talk of the town since then.
What can you say about other greats in highlife music like Osita Osadebey, Roy Chicago, Eddy Okonta, Adeolu Akinsanya? What can you remember about them?
They were all good and great musicians. They were very good during their lifetime .They were equally as great as Victor Abimbola Olaiya , if not greater.
How come you sing in Igbo too?
If you have read through my early life and history you will have discovered that I grew up in Igbo land, born in Calabar. I went to Owerri RCM School. From there, I went to Onitsha for my education, the Anglican college. That was where I learnt to play the horn which later metamorphosed into B flat trumpet .I schooled in Igbo land , learnt to play the horns in Igbo land and thereafter I transferred my services to the Yoruba land in Lagos.This has made up for my early history and how I became what some people have called a ‘Tribalist’ because I speak plenty of languages. That was how I came about playing in Igbo, Itsekiri, Hausa , Yoruba and so many other languages.
I can remember the 1959 federal elections you sang Bakudaya
That is true .I think it was a generally accepted tune at that time and gave me another extra boost during the Awolowo, Azikwe and Opara campaign for political parties before independence .Bakudaya was accepted at that time by all the three major regions at that time. I thank God for that.
Can you compare today’s music with the past and what is the future of highlife?
I call all other musicians my professional colleagues because we are all doing the same job. I am not out to crucify or criticize .I don’t think it is my right to criticize any musician, but I have this to say that what they play nowadays is music.
We are all in the profession.
Whether it is acceptable or not is a question of opinion but what I need to say is that in those days, during our time, we tried to play constructive and educative, highly philosophical and a palatable music .Music that conveys sense and again it has to be musical and the arrangement has to be fantastic. It has to be educative .What people say of the present days musicians quite frankly is a question of opinion. What they are doing is not what we tried to do during our own time.
Whether that is correct or incorrect , I leave it to the public. It’s a question of opinion. They are also playing music.
Is highlife not threatened? Because most present day musicians are not playing highlife. What is the future of high life?
High life has a great future, because for it I live, for it I shall die. There is no gain saying everybody wants to talk about high life. High-life is the lingua franca of this nation .Fuji, Fuji reggae, afro beat, juju, all of them had to borrow a leaf or two from high-life 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 high life music.
We learnt that you were there when Nigeria was fighting the civil war with Biafra. Is that correct that you played for the Federal troops at the war front?
That is very true and I was given the honorary rank of Lieutenant colonel at that time. I went to one division – Kaduna -Nsukka sector and I took highlife to Congo during the Congo civil war and our troops went there to assist them. I was seconded to Congo to take high-life with my band to the place. I think I did my best to make the troops happy, to be able to popularize highlife music of Nigeria.
If you were to advise musicians of this generation what will it be?
My advice will be that anybody who wants to come into music shouldn’t come into it because Victor Abimbola Olaiya has made a success of it. They must make sure they have callings in the field of music . Examine your conscience , pray to your God and you must be very hard working. I believe that to be a successful man you have to work very hard .
It’s been said that ninety nine percent of the people in the world do not think , the remaining one percent, four over five of that one percent think they think, while one percent of it does the thinking for the whole of the world and I think that is where I stand.
The young should make sure that they have natural callings in the field of music , be prayerful, work hard and success will be yours.