…Revealed what kept him on till he passed on
…His life, death, legacy & comment on Tuface
By BENJAMIN NJOKU
Have you ever listened to a song that reminded you of the unforgettable past? Or song that made you forget your worries and stress after the day’s toiling? Maybe you play music to help you think deeply about life and its meaning. Dr. Victor Olaiya’s music inspired many generations of highlife music lovers within and outside the shores of Nigeria.
His music is a bridge between the old and new highlife rhythms. It definitely created emotion as well as triggered memories. It also gave one the best night’s sleep.
Although he was born a Yoruba man, Olaiya’s music had a global appeal. And it’s on that the world of music have been mourning the loss of a true singing sensation.
Olaiya’s death on Wednesday afternoon, has marked the end of an era in the Nigerian highlife music genre. At 89, many believed that the highlife legend still had a lot to offer to the younger generation. While he lived, Olaiya was known to be one man that sustained his musical influence on different generations in Nigeria and the world at large.
For juju maestro, Ebenezer Obey, Olaiya’s contribution to the development of highlife music in Nigeria is immeasurable.
According to him, the story of Nigerian highlife music cannot be complete without mentioning the role Olaiya played in the evolution of the genre.
“Olaiya’s death is a great loss to our nation. He happened to be one of the fathers of highlife music in Nigeria. He was committed to the development of highlife music in the country. There is no way we will talk about highlife music in this country without referring to him as one of the pillars of Nigerian highlife music.”
“He was a very hard working musician and he released a lot albums. He had been an encouragement to people like us. He related to the younger musicians very well and he was a nice man. At 89, we wouldn’t want him to go home now, but death is something that we all must face,” Obey said, while paying tribute to the late Olaiya.
The juju maestro, however, called on the federal government to immortalize people like Victor Olaiya. “People like Victor Olaiya should be immortalized by the government. The history of highlife music in Nigeria will not be complete without mentioning the role that Olaiya played. I want to use this medium to call our leaders that they should immortalize people like Victor Olaiya . If he was not well celebrated when he was alive, we should celebrate him now that he’s no more,” Obey maintained.
On his own, Chief Tony Okoroji, Chiarman, Copyright Society of Nigeria, COSON, described the late Highlife legend, as “a great musician, Iroko in the Nigerian music industry.”
“He was one of us in the entertainment industry. He was a great musician, a great Iroko in the Nigerian music industry. Over time, there will be other musicians but no other Victor Olaiya. He held on to his music, his trumpet, decade after decade. We will miss him. We mourn him, but in mourning him, we celebrate him,” Okoroji said.
Known as the evil genius of highlife music, Olaiya burst into the music scene in the 1950s and 1960s. He was the only Nigerian musician to ever earn a platinum record. A trumpeter, Olaiya was best known for hits such as ‘Africa’ and ‘Baby Jowo’.
The latter was remixed in 2013 by 2Baba who also featured him. The turning point in his music career came when he broke away from the popular Bobby Benson Jam Session Orchestra, where he was leader and trumpeter of the second band, to start his own band, Cool Cats, in 1954. He made his debut that same year. Since then, there had been no stopping Olaiya from blowing his trumpet and making the waves with highlife music, until few years ago when he took a bow from the stage.
His band gained national recognition when it was selected to play at the state ball, which highlighted major activities of Queen Elizabeth of Englands visit to Nigeria in 1956. His Cool Cats band was also the sole band chosen to play at Nigeria Miss Independence zonal competitions in 16 centres nationwide. Olaiyas band was in high demand, essentially for its discipline, high sense of commitment and outstanding performances.
Prior to his retirement from his six-decade sojourn in music, in 2017, Olaiya held gigs at his Stadium Hotel in Surulere. He reportedly made the decision to stay off stage after his doctor’s instruction to desist from performances following ill-health. But while he was still performing on stage, the highlife legend was still pulling crowd at his Stadium Hotel, Surulere.
According to his manager, Gbenga Adewusi, “Aside from attending his gigs, he no longer comes to work regularly as a result of age-related health issues.”
Until his death, Olaiya remained 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.
Olaiya’s music reportedly was influenced by the horns and harmonies of James Brown. And, 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. His highlife genre of music did not only make great impact in the past, but also, it continued to rock the present, with promises of a greater hold on the future.
Till date, people are still talking about Olaiya’s 2013 musical collaboration with 2face. Many said the collaboration would forever stand as a memorial to the highlife legend. It was the biggest musical collaboration in Nigeria that would outlive both the artistes and continue to resonate with the passage of time.
Speaking on the collaboration in an interview with Saturday Vanguard in 2014, Victor Olaiya said: “We were trying to do something of that nature in the highlife all stars club which we formed years ago .While we were contemplating of doing that, the Premier Record Limited came up with the idea of the collaboration and we gave it a shot. 2Face is such a gifted young boy that I like. He respects people especially his elders. He is gifted musically. We did the collaboration and it was a success. The song has become the talk of the town since then.’
Also, Premier Records Limited, the label under which Olaiya was signed before his demise, saw the collaboration as a way of uniting musicians from different generations; it is also provided a cultural background and timelessness.
“It is pertinent that we bring back to the music industry what made Dr. Victor Olaiya internationally known,” said Michael Odiong, Project Manager of Premier Records. “His lyrics are still very relevant today, and he had so many tracks like ‘Ilu Le O’ and ‘Mr Judge’ that have an impact on people everywhere, and his classic love songs like ‘Omo pupa’ ‘Fami Mora O’ will withstand the test of time any day. We want to encourage younger stars to take advantage of these classic songs and do something new with them.”
2face will forever be grateful to the late highlife legend for that ancient and modern collaboration. “Thanks for the beautiful music. Thanks for the inspiration. Blessed for the honour of sharing a mic and stage with you,” 2face wrote
Olaiya lived his life on stage even though he described music as a hobby. ” Music, as much as it is my profession, is also a hobby’, adding “While on stage, I do a number of exercises and showmanship. I twist myself, go up, down, blow the horns, thus exercising the lungs and the limbs and all parts of my body, including the brain. I believe that has been keeping me going.’
He once expressed his undying passion for highlife music.
Speaking in an interview, the music legend said: “Highlife music has a great future because for it I live, for it I shall die. There is no gainsaying that everybody wants to talk about highlife music. Highlife is the lingua-franca of this nation. Fuji, 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 high life music.” This is how much Olaiya cherished highlife music.
Born in Calabar and raised in the south-east, Olaiya was the pillar of higlife music in Nigeria. He was awarded the honorary doctorate degree in African music when he led his band, which he eventually changed from Cool Cats to All Stars Band, to represent Africa at an International Jazz Festival in Prague, Czechoslovakia. He has not only shared same stage with highlife music giant, E. T. Mensah of Ghana, he released a joint album with him, which was a best seller with the Ghanaian highlife idol.
Apart from hitting top music chat with series of his album releases, Olaiya was also engaged in the thriving business of importation and distribution of musical instruments and accessories, which spans the entire West African sub-region. He equally established the ultra-modern Stadium Hotel in Surulere, which today provides an outlet for a good number of Nigerian artistes to showcase their acts just as it has provided the popular acclaimed highlife evil genius a convenient venue to thrill his teaming fans with regular weekend gigs.
A talented sports man and lover of pets, Olaiya was in 1990 conferred with the fellowship of the Institute of Administrative Management of Nigeria and another doctorate degree (honorary) by the City University of Los Angeles, California, USA. He was former president of the Nigerian Union of Musicians (NUM) and still played his highlife gigs to thrill at his Stadium Hotel complex.