Africans and the music world, especially that of the highlife genre are still reeling from the exit of iconic Nigerian singer Victor Olaiya, who died last month at age 89. Olaiya left indelible imprints on the music world having influenced quite a number of musicians who became stars on their own right. One of those was the late afrobeat king, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Victor Olaiya always carried a pen in his breast pocket for noting instructions or observation that had to be precisely followed. He wrote down musical notes and phrases as he got inspired.
This was in his prime days as a performer when the trumpeter was trying to create Nigeria’s highlife rhythms. At that time, music was something he did as a leisure, being a worker at the survey department of Lagos Mainland Local Government.
When his boss saw a photo of him in the local newspaper after one of his shows, Olaiya thought he had just got himself fired from the civil service but fortunately for him, he was told that he was better at music than as a bureaucrat. Shortly afterwards he resigned from the job and took on music full time.
Olaiya had wealthy parents who lived in the southern city of Calabar. He had an early start to music as he took from his parents who were both actively involved in their church choir department. His father was the organist while his mother a folk singer from the western city of Oyo.
Growing up, he was also influenced by Caribbean calypso and included the popular song Sly Mongoose in his repertoire that he recalled first hearing when he was nine years old. He was taught Western classical music, and used to play the clarinet and French horn in his school orchestra in eastern Nigeria.
Years later, forging his gold trumpet and dabbing his face with a white handkerchief, Olaiya would perform a different of music in Nigeria that would go on to inspire a young Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and others.
After his basic education he moved to Lagos where he joined the Lagos City Orchestra and then the band of composer Sammy Akpabot, playing ballroom music for wealthy urban audiences but it was as the head of Bobby Benson’s Alfa Carnival Group that his skills would be properly groomed.
Benson recruited a number of musicians under his arms and it was here that Olaiya nurtured his talents that would help him form his own band, the Cool Cats.
Olaiya songs were often romantic and the lyrics, which to today’s eyes appear sexist, often include erotic imagery.
To backed this up, Olaiya’s 1961 track Adelebo Tonwoku (Single Lady Looking for a Husband) posits that if a woman, referred to as “Cinderella shaking her buttocks”, finds a husband she should “forgo education”.
As a musical jargon, highlife was first used in Ghana in the 1920s to symbolize a band playing a fusion of foreign and local instruments driven by multiple guitars and horns.
Olaiya’s musical influence came from Ghana, as he was a mutual admirer of the Tempo band of highlife legend ET Mensah, who played in Nigeria multiple times from 1951.
When Olaiya announced his Cool Cats band, he imitated Mensah’s style and had Ghanaian Sammy Lartey as saxophonist. After a while, Olaiya and Mensah both release a joint album.
Due to his type of music, it was impossible for someone to hear his music and not dance to it. This made his music so popular that in 1960 he played at the party to celebrate Nigeria’s independence in front of Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret.
Olaiya who was also a multi-linguist sang in Twi, Igbo, Efik, Pidgin and Yoruba and his band would become a training ground for musicians who would revolutionize music in Africa.
Among those that was mentored by Olaiya was Fela, creator of the Afrobeat genre and undoubtedly Nigeria’s most influential musician.
From his secondary school days in 1957, Fela spent most of his time playing with Olaiya’s Cool Cats in Lagos and headed another of the maestro’s bands.
Olaiya recognized a prodigy and gave him an opportunity, in the same way that he was supported by Benson.
Fela’s drummer, Tony Allen, was also among Olaiya’s band. Other renowned musicians that passed through his band were juju musician Dele Ojo, guitar wizard Victor Uwaifo and saxophonist Yinusa Akinnibosun.
In order to keep up with the later generations, Olaiya started doing things like shooting music videos but he never looked comfortable with that style, being already used to singing at disco bars, the big orchestra and the larger-than-life bands performing for dandy crowds.
There were several attempts to introduce his music to a new audience.
In 2013, Tuface Idibia, also a veteran in his generation, remixed Olaiya’s Baby Jowo. It was a homage to another time but only underlined how things had changed.
Majority of highlife musicians whose music were celebrated in the past are still scattered in the eastern and western parts of Nigeria but their lyrics are now mostly used at funerals.