On February 12, 2020 Nigerian music legend, Victor Olaiya, who performed at Nigeria’s independence ball in 1960 died at 89. Olaiya was so good with his highlife music that he was awarded Order of the Niger in 2009. Curiously, he was a civil servant, but gave it up to concentrate on his music.
He inspired a generation of musicians with his brand of sound not least Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. The trumpeter, who was once a government filing clerk at the survey department of Lagos mainland local government was noted to have always carried a pen in his breast pocket to write down the musical notes and phrases as they came to him.
Olaiya was born to church organist father and folk singer mother in the southern city of Calabar. His Yoruba parents were wealthy and being music lovers, it didn’t take long for him to step in their shoes.
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As a teenager, Olaiya was taught Western classical music and played the clarinet and French horn in his school orchestra in eastern Nigeria.
After his secondary school, Olaiya moved to Lagos joining the Lagos City Orchestra, Sammy Akpabot’s band and Bobby Benson’s Alfa Carnival Group.
Benson took a number of musicians under his wing and it was here that Olaiya polished the skills that would help him form his own band, the Cool Cats.
By the 1950s, the middle-class Nigerians were coming into their own prepping for independence in 1960. With the exodus of the colonial oppressor, the skilled trumpeter and his peers were called upon to brew music reflective of the local rhythms and melodies as well as culture.
Olaiya took to Ghana’s highlife which was already popular by the 1920s in that country. It in essence saw bands play a fusion of foreign and local instruments driven by multiple guitars and horns.
And for Olaiya, he was influenced by none other than Ghanaian king of highlife E.T. Mensah. He was a keen admirer of Mensah’s Tempo band who toured Nigeria multiple times from 1951.
Historian Hermann W. von Hesse said it wasn’t just the name “highlife” that was coined in coastal Ghana but that “the highlife we know in West Africa as a fusion of local rhythms, brass band music, Kru and Caribbean musical influences was created in Ghana before it began to slowly spread to Nigeria in the 1930s and became very popular in that country thanks to E.T. Mensah,” adding “Mensah, who was “the King of West African Highlife Music” did a nationwide tour of the Nigerian Federation in the 1950s. And Olaiya was E.T. Mensah’s protégé sort of.”
Little wonder then that when Olaiya formed his Cool Cats band, he adopted Mensah’s style and had Ghanaian Sammy Lartey as saxophonist. Years later, Olaiya and Mensah would release a joint album.
Olaiya’s highlife brand would inspire a young Fela Anikulapo-Kuti among others with Fela branding his music genre Afrobeat with roots in highlife. Fela fresh from secondary school in 1957, spent time playing with Olaiya’s Cool Cats in Lagos and headed another of the maestro’s bands.
Olaiya was once described by a newspaper editor as “the evil genius of highlife.” He was a multi-linguist and sang in Twi, Igbo, Efik, Pidgin and Yoruba.
By 1970, under the influence of James Brown, Olaiya had branched into soul and funk music. His Up-to-Date Mover album of that year included five tracks co-written with Brown.
Olaiya retired from music because of failing health in 2017.