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Exit of highlife ‘evil genius’, Victor Olaiya


Like Don Corleone in The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by Albert S. Ruddy, based on Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel of the same name, who had a significant impact on people, Dr. Victor Abimbola Olaiya impacted the country’s music. He was the last man standing.

His musical style was influenced by James Brown, with horn parts harmonised in Brown’s style, as opposed to the mostly unison lines of Afrobeat. The music includes the swinging percussion of Tony Allen, but not the syncopated style that Allen later pioneered. Both Allen and vocalist Fela Kuti played with Olaiya and went on to achieve individual success.

Olaiya’s music was a bridge between Ghanaian highlife and what would become Afrobeat. According to the veteran broadcaster and music critic, Benson Idonije, “Olaiya was influenced by ET Mensah. He used to go to Ghana a lot to watch E.T. Mensah perform. At some point, both of them collaborated in a performance that held in Lagos tagged, Highlife Giants.” In fact, Olaiya released an album with the Ghanaian highlife musician.

While disclosing how he got the sobriquet, ‘evil genius’, the octogenarian had told The Guardian in an earlier interview, “highlife music is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration. I am called evil genius because I make my fans sweat through dancing while enjoying my music. To make a difference in the music, you need to sweat.”

Born in Calabar, Cross River State, the 20th child of a family of 24,his parents, Alfred Omolona Olaiya and Bathsheba Owolabi Motajo, came from Ijesha-Ishu in Ekiti State.
Olaiya came from a very rich family. His father’s house called Ilọjọs Bar stood on Bamgbose Street, Lagos Island, until it was demolished on September 11, 2016.

At an early age, he learned to play the Bombardon and the French horn. After leaving school, he moved to Lagos, where he passed the school certificate examination in 1951 and was accepted by Howard University, US, to study civil engineering. Olaiya, instead, pursued a career as a musician, to the disapproval of his parents. He played with the Sammy Akpabot Band, was leader and trumpeter for the Old Lagos City Orchestra and joined the Bobby Benson Jam Session Orchestra.

In 1954, Olaiya formed his own band, the Cool Cats, playing popular highlife music. His band was chosen to play at the state ball when Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom visited Nigeria in 1956, and later to play at the state balls when Nigeria became independent in 1960 and when Nigeria became a republic in 1963. “I was in my highest spirit that glorious night when my band was set on the dais to thrill Nigerians, who in spite of the heavy downpour turned out in their thousands to witness the great occasion.”

That was how he captured the moment for The Guardian. In fact, the days of independence held great promises for the artists. However, it was not a smooth ride to prominence for the artists, especially, the musicians who had to contend with overwhelming patronage of foreign music.

According to Olaiya: “Aside being elevated by the honour of being commissioned to perform at the Independence Day celebrations, I was in fact spurred by an overwhelming sense of patriotism and honour to thrill the large crowd that thronged the venue. “We were given the rare opportunity and privilege of being introduced to the dignitaries like Princess Alexandria of Kent, Sir James Robertson, representing the Queen Elizabeth II of England and Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, (First Nigerian Prime Minister), among others.

“While my band was at the center stage, the Nigerian Police Force band led by Commissioner of Police, Mr. Benedict E. Odiase (rtd) and the Zeal Onyia led Nigerian National Band were at hand as supporting bands.”Olaiya renamed his band to the All Stars Band when they played the 1963 International Jazz Festival in Czechoslovakia.

On the latter occasion, Olaiya shared the stage with the American jazz musician Louis Armstrong. During the Nigerian Civil War of 1967–70, Olaiya was given the rank of a lieutenant colonel (honorary) in the Nigerian army and his band played for the troops at various locations. The Cool Cats later travelled to the Congo to perform for United Nations troops.Olaiya also ran a business that imported and distributed musical instruments and accessories throughout West Africa, and established the Stadium Hotel in Surulere.

In 1990, Olaiya received a fellowship of the Institute of Administrative Management of Nigeria. For a period, he was also president of the Nigerian Union of Musicians.In 2013, he featured 2Baba in a remix of his song Baby Jowo, bookending a career that has influenced many of today’s Nigerian sounds including the revered Afro beat.

The song, which perfectly explains how best wine can taste the longer it lasts, is a love rendition, which typifies the old school romance, embracing this generation.In 2017, Dr. Victor Olaiya reportedly announced his retirement from six-decade career in music. His decision was hinged on failing health and doctor’s instruction to desist from performances.

Prior to making the decision, the highlife legend every week, stage a command performance at his Stadium Hotel, which is located on Iyun Street, Surulere, Lagos.His manager, Gbenga Adewusi, said, “Aside from attending his gigs, he no longer comes to work regularly as a result of age-related health issues.”Olaiya had many wives, children and grandchildren. One of his daughters, the late Moji Olaiya, was a Nollywood actress.

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Victor Olaiya
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