By Owei Lakemfa
Victor Olaiya: A WIDELY held African belief is that there are three stages in life: when you are born, adulthood and old age which presages eternal departure. These are also symbolised by dawn, afternoon and sunset.
Likewise, the life of Victor Abimbola Olaiya, the music genius can be broken into three equal segments, neatly characterized into three 30-year periods. He was born into colonial Nigeria in 1930 and witnessed the agitations for independence and a prosperous future. Thirty years later, the new country, Nigeria was midwifed.
Olaiya was commissioned to perform at the official State Banquet to mark October 1, 1960 Independence Day. In the next thirty years, he saw a troubled country seized by soldiers, fight a needless and degenerative Civil War in which some two million perished, and the country firmly under military jackboots.
In another three decades, as his sun set, he also witnessed the sun of his beloved country setting thanks to a sick and parasitic political class which plays politics with everything.
Olaiya handled the trumpet the way only a genius could, and played Highlife music which rocked the 1950s into the early 1970s and laid the foundation for subsequent music genres like Juju. The founder and creator of Afro Beat, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, cut his teeth under him. Olaiya was a music machine producing one hit after another. One of them is ‘Ilu Le’, a narrative of the economic difficulties to which the citizens of the new country were being subjected.
The simple, emotive and highly danceable song was rendered in two stanzas in Shakespearian couplet form. The first was about the general hardship which all suffered. The second stanza focused on what he analysed as the coping strategies of women.
He sang in Yoruba that a gaily dressed woman would visit a man and tell him she’d looked everywhere for him, wondering if nobody ever told him. For Olaiya, this was a mere smokescreen for the lady to seek financial bailout.
This highly melodious song with simple and unforgettable lyrics, speaks to the heart of the populace. It was an early indication of Olaiya being a social conscience of the people. Also embedded in the song is his lifelong preoccupation with women themes. Another hit “Omo pupa” is a dedication to fair skinned ladies. In wooing the lady he tells her: “When I get to London, I will send you money for ticket.” Obviously a fake promise.
In “Mofe muyan” he sang: “Please tell the lady not to leave. I have said we came to catch fun. Lady, please don’t leave. I am child-like…” The “Mr. Judge” song is rendered as a court drama in which he is helpless about the beautiful women, especially those that frequent the Itafaji and Tejuosho markets.
He sang in English: “I say Mr. Judge show me the way. Before you talk, I plead not guilty…All the girls from Campus Square…E.T. Mensah blow your horn. Dr. Victor Olaiya blow your horn.”
“Tina Mate” is a song wrapped like a conflict in a question and answer form. He asks, in any given situation who do you choose: mother or wife, wife or girlfriend? In “Iyawo Maronu” the husband tries to comfort the wife and counsels her not to become belligerent or adversarial just because they are undergoing financial challenges.
He cautions her not to become unfaithful as nobody can predict the future. In “Gbemisola” he uses a female vocalist who praises the husband and pledges her love, singing: “If I have riches today, you gave them to me.”
Olaiya loved and respected women but in general, he tended to see them in his music more as lubricants of society rather than engines that move society. “Iye Jemila” is an hilarious song in Ijebu languge in which he called out an imaginary couple, the parents of his heart throb, Jemila who after collecting some money from him refused to give him her hand in marriage.
He makes an allusion to the Ijebus alleged tendency to counterfeit money. He cautioned them: “Human beings are water. They flow across the world. If we don’t meet at the source, we’ll meet upstream.”
In “Afrika” which he rendered in English, he lamented that the continent is burning and dying. Singing: “Afrika, so so fight, fight, fight. Afrika so so war, war,war. Afrika so so fire, fire fire. Afrika so so die, die, die.” He gave examples of the then war theatres like Congo, Sudan and Chad.
But in giving examples of the wars in Angola, Mozambique, Soweto (South Africa) Namibia and Zimbabwe, he failed to indicate that they were liberation wars; necessary wars against colonialism, racism and apartheid.
Olaiya sang many philosophical songs employing the trumpet and many languages, especially Nigerian and Ghanaian. He was a well organised person who believed deeply in collectivity. I was shocked in the late 1980s when I got a message from him seeking an appointment to visit me in the Vanguard Newspapers where I was Labour Editor. I replied that he is a father of my generation and that he should rather, grant me the honour of visiting him.
During our meeting at his hotel, I discovered he had been reading my debate against the Performing Musicians Employers’ Association of Nigeria, PMEAN, being run by non-employers who had tried to drop the word “Employers” from the organisation’s name and changed the acronym to PMAN.
He wanted me to help build another musicians body, the Nigeria Union of Musicians, NUM, which is “a forum for bands (and) musicians who play an instrument or sing.”
He was the President of the NUM and wanted me, in addition, to assist in getting the Radio, Television and Theatre Workers Union, RATTAWU, to affiliate the NUM. Olaiya believed in labour and solidarity and marched at the May Day. During my visits, he gave me copies of his records which he autographed.
Nigeria underwent long spells of military misrule with brutal dictators holding the country in a vile stranglehold. The most brutal and kleptocratic was General Sani Abacha who wanted to transform into an ‘elected’ President. For this, he deployed huge sums from the looted national treasury. In that season of infamy, Abacha gave PMEAN a billion naira contract to get all the notable musicians to perform at a march to endorse his be-goggled makeover.
The leading musicians fell over themselves to get to Abuja and perform for evil. Tried as the organisers could dangling huge sums of money, two musicians pointedly rejected the money and refused to join in the chorus of infamy: young Femi Kuti and Olaiya. Monuments are unlikely to be named after him, but Dr. Victor Abimbola Olaiya who departed on February 12, 2020 will never be forgotten.