When news of the death of veteran highlife music don, Dr Victor Abimbola Olaiya OON flew around on Wednesday, 12th February 2020, most African music lovers both old and young who knew him or familiar with his songs cringed. The sad news was enough to elicit shock especially coming just a day after the news of the death of another African musical icon, Joseph Shabalala, founder of Grammy-winning South African acapella band, Ladysmith and Black Mambazo hit the world.
Those who cringed did so not because Olaiya did not live to a ripe age of 89 years but because his musical legacies and contributions will forever represent him.
He was contemporary of Roy Chicago, Rex Lawson, Osita Osadebe, Eddy Okonta, Baby Face Paul, Agu Noris and a host of others. But he outlived them as they have all long died most in their youths and middle age.
Dissecting the music of Victor Olaiya places him on a different class of his own. With his slow tempo and gravel voice and an orchestrated horn session, he released albums upon albums, singles upon singles, never getting tired. When he was not recording in the studio, new collections of his repertoire were being released, making him one of the most commercially viable artistes in Nigeria.
He was very prolific and proficient in his art. He sang about love, women, workers and life in general terms and soon became the most respected poster boy of the 50s and 60s. The mastery of his instrument, the trumpet was legendary. So was his showmanship too.
Little wonder he was on hand for all the Nigerian command performances including the famous state visit of Queen Elizabeth 11 to Nigeria in 1956. Being chosen to play at state banquets for the Nigerian independence in 1960 and in 1963 when the country became a Republic shows that he was exemplary.
One of the biggest pluses for Olaiya was his ability to sing in many major Nigerian languages of English, Yoruba, Igbo (Anyi gana), Efik and Ibibio (Essien Udoh), factors that may have caused his music to become accepted nationwide with fan base even as far as Ghana as his collaboration with then African highlife music kingpin ET Mensah showed.
To underscore the depth of his immense talents is to understand that Olaiya was the only Nigerian musician who shared stage with world-renowned trumpeter, Louis Armstrong known to be very disciplined and thorough when he performed in Nigeria.
He was also the best choice to entertain Nigerian troops at the fronts during the Nigeria civil war. He also went to Congo to perform for UN Troops.
His popularity and dexterity with his instrument; the trumpet attracted many talented musicians like Bala Miller, Fela Kuti, ace drummer Tony Allen and a host of others.
It also caused veteran entertainment writer of the then Daily Times Alade Odunewu of Allah De fame to describe him as Evil Genius of highlife music.
The fact that Dr Olaiya remained with one record label all his life speaks volumes about his character and state of mind. He seemed to have a different temperament as compared to many of his contemporaries. Musicians are known to be eccentric and erratic at same time. But not Olaiya who was cool, calm, calculative and serious-minded just as the name of his band; Cool Cats.
After the release of his first single Odale Ore issued from Badejo sound studios, he moved to Philips, a label in which he followed all the mergers and acquisition of the company through the years from Philips to Polydor(Polygram). He was still there when it became Premier music. The company continued to release Olaiya up until mid-2000 when it seemed to have become a free for all and many international labels have been making all manner of compilations and releases.
Despite that he was said never to have won international honors, awards recognition, Olaiya had some noticeable presence in Europe and US as his many music collections distributed by many international record labels including Philips in the Netherlands touched many highlife music lovers worldwide and continued to provide royalties.
This also earned him a performance at the International Jazz Festival in Prague representing Nigeria in 1963.
Since 2003, more of his CDs have hit the international market with reckless abandon.
Fortune also trailed Olaiya and his fame through music. He built the then famous Stadium Hotel where he rehearsed and performed with his band at weekends.
There are a set of houses and properties on Victor Olaiya street in Aguda, Surulere, Lagos owned by him.
There were times in Nigeria when Olaiya was the major supplier of musical equipment in Nigeria as a whole.
It was an overall character of excellence that made him the most important and successful musician of the time recognized by Federal Government of Nigeria.
All these accomplishments made Nigerians very livid a few years back when a certain LGA Chairman threatened to rename the street he first developed.
Aside from his devotion to his music, Dr Olaiya was worried about the issues of rights and privileges of the downtrodden. He was at a time, President of the Nigeria Union of musicians.
Professor of ethnomusicology Taiwo Ogunade, formerly of the National Theatre during FESTAC 77 recalls how Olaiya had led a protest to the National Theatre to challenge the choice of musicians to represent Nigeria at the festival of Black arts and culture FESTAC. Olaiya had seen that the real musicians were being sidelined for mediocrity and spoke out in vehement terms.
Perhaps what many consider to be the biggest connection between old and new generation of Nigerian highlife music lovers came in 2013 when entertainment and film director, Afolayan got Tuface Idibia to duet with Olaiya in a remix of the all-time hit track Baby Jowo, the love song that continues to tickle and generate interest with a first-class video in tow. Many see this as a tonic that will surely keep Olaiya in our hearts for a very long time to come
Veteran of music broadcasting and journalism in Nigeria Benson Idonije in a chat says “ Olaiya was a great trumpeter and singer. He was a legendary icon of Nigerian music especially highlife. While I presented highlife and jazz music programmes on NBC, his music was a great part of the programme alongside that of others like Rex Lawson, Roy Chicago and the Rhythm Dandies etc. In my book This Fela Sef, Olaiya was conspicuously discussed. Fela started in his band. He influenced Fela a lot musically. Some of Fela’s song structures in his early years were Olaiya inclined. When we had the monthly live highlife music series; Great Highlife Party, Olaiya featured live in the edition in which we honored Late Bala Miller. Miller was also associated with Olaiya. He played trumpet in his band before forming his own band.