Dr. Victor Olaiya… 60 years of blowing on fame and fortune
I had always craved for an interview with Dr. Olaiya, whom I consider one of the greatest musicians to have come out of Nigeria. So, when the news of his 60 Years on Stage celebration filtered in, I contacted my links and a chat was arranged at his Stadium Hotel, Surulere, Lagos.
Neatly dressed, as usual, Dr. Olaiya was fielding questions from a crew that was producing a documentary on his life and times when I called that evening. Clutching the trumpet and two new white handkerchiefs, the 82-year-old musician is still very active, ever ready to demonstrate his mastery of the trumpet. At his age, names, events, and dates are by his fingertips.
At intervals, he would sip a glass of red wine, which he mixed with an energy drink. You needed to hear his laughs with that husky voice that gave life to his music. Patiently, I waited, watching the old man as he recounted the ups and downs that shaped his 60-year career. Obviously, Dr. Olaiya had fun that night; he laughed, drank and ran commentaries, even as the crew drilled him.
Finally, it was my turn to meet Dr. Olaiya, who has succeeded in earning both fame and fortune from playing music. All through our conversation, he was relaxed and sounded so fulfilled.
“It wasn’t easy, but one has to involve the grace of God,” he started. “It’s been full of ups and downs, but hard work pays; you have to work hard. Most importantly, you have to pray to God; you need to be devoted and be sure you have the calling to play music.”
If you belong to the group that considers music an all-comers affair, well, the old man has a different opinion.
“As a musician, you must ensure you are working relentlessly day and night; don’t just fool yourself in the name of playing music. Because I found joy in music, it looks like it was easy. Once you find joy in anything you are doing, you will feel it’s an easy task,” he noted.
From his tone and body language, the composer of the classic, Omo Pupa seems to be ready to groove.
“I’m sure that some of my children who are available will be on the stage with me that day. They will also be performing on their own as well; they will give guests an exclusive show. We will also have some guest artistes coming on. I don’t even know what to do myself; maybe I should sit down and watch,” he said as be broke into laughter, sipping his glass of wine.
He continued: “One of my brothers, Col. Olaiya said he’s going to be a co-celebrant with me; he’s a retired Colonel in the army. He was in my band during the Cool Cats days when the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti was in my band; both of them were learning to play in my second band. Later, both of them went to England, but he refused to do music. He’s going to be around that day,” he assured.
THOUGH a successful musician by all standards, Victor Olaiya’s childhood ambition had nothing to with music.
“My ambition was not to be a musician; I wanted to be an engineer.”
What was the attraction?
“Well, I understand that to be an engineer, you must be very good in Mathematics and one of my best subjects in school was mathematics; I concentrated so much on anything that had to do with calculation.”
Unfortunately for young Victor, his secondary school was not accredited, thereby robbing him of the opportunity to study science subjects.
“I didn’t go to an approved secondary; there was no option of doing physics and chemistry, so the only option left was mathematics; I had to do mathematics because I wanted to become an engineer. Fortunately or unfortunately, I ended up blowing the trumpet.”
Though becoming a full-time musician happened by accident, music seems to run in the Olaiya lineage.
“My mother Bathsheba Owolabi Olaiya happened to be the leader of a cultural group in Calabar and my father was an organist in the African Church Halleluiah. So, when I moved from Calabar to Owerri and then to Onitsha for my primary education, I joined the African School Brass Band; that was where I learned to play the trumpet.”
For his secondary education, young Victor moved to Lagos, where he started playing with street bands for fun. At that time, making money from music was never on his agenda.
“I remember playing for a band where I was being paid one shilling and six pence; to collect the money, it would take almost another one month,” he said laughing aloud.
How difficult was it surviving as a musician then?
“Oh, it was not easy being a musician then because we were very few. People like Mallam Bala Miller, Prof. Samuel Akpabot, Zeal Onyia… it was not easy being a musician at that time,” he stressed.
In those days, musicians were regarded as lazy people and never do well. While some of them struggled to keep a home, others never had one. The nature of their job kept them on the roads for weeks, exposing them to drunkenness and wayward lifestyle.
“That line of thought actually affected me in that I never let any member of my family know that I play music until it was published in Daily Times, front page, bold type, ‘Victor Olaiya nominated for the State Independence Ball.” Then, our house was around Tinubu Square and my elder brother, Daniel Odegbite Olaiya, usually bought the newspaper from the vendors on the street. That day, the first thing he noticed was the story about my nomination.”
Not sure of the Victor Olaiya that was reported in the papers, he called for an emergency meeting of the whole family members.
“We gathered at about 6.30 am after our morning prayers; he was determined to confirm if it was my own Victor Olaiya or another one. I was shivering that morning but he said to me, ‘look, be free, we are not going to beat you, just tell us the truth.”
How old were you then?
“I was about 17 or 18 years; that was in 1960. So, he told me to cool down and answer him. He asked me, ‘who is this Victor Olaiya? Are you the one?’ Reluctantly I said, ‘yes, I’m the one.’ Surprisingly that morning, he said they should all pray for me. That day, I got my freedom to play music.”
Before then, young Victor had always played secretly for fear of being forced to stop. Thanks to his late cousin, Omotayo, who was ever ready to provide cover; he actually benefited from the venture.
“He was the one helping me then; he used to open the door for me early in the morning. Our then house was a Brazilian house in Tinubu Square, with a small door at the back. He would sneak out to open the back door for me whenever they called for morning prayers; I used to hide in my late brother’s Citron whenever I returned late at night. So, I usually sneaked in through the back door,” he said, laughing mischievously.
“The money I was getting from playing music was for me and my cousin to eat bean and bread in the morning; so, he had no option than to cooperate and open the door for me, else I would be flogged,” he said still reeling with laughter. “My elder brother complained that anybody in music must be a dropout, a vagabond and never do well. So, this was their opinion about musicians and they never wanted any member of the family to play music.”
As providence would have it, Dr. Victor Olaiya has succeeded in disproving that line of thought, paving the way for the younger generation to see something good in music.
To the trumpeter, the opportunity to play at the Independence State Ball remains the highpoint of his music career.
“Well, I got plenty of money,” he revealed excitedly. “The then Minister for Social Welfare, J.M Johnson (JMJ) was the one that nominated me to play that day. After that, all other artists, especially from the West and Lagos ganged up to protest against my nomination.”
What was their grouse?
“They complained that it was an occasion for all the musicians to rejoice and be happy and should not be given to just one musician. The government had to give me the security to prevent me from being attacked by anybody. So, each time I was going to play anywhere, the National Security Service must determine where I should play and the route I must follow. It wasn’t easy, but I enjoyed it.”
In the spirit of celebration, the then Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa advised Johnson to direct all other musicians to form a National Band and support Olaiya at the Ball.
“We also had the police Band to play the National Anthem. So, when I was resting with my band, the National Band was asked to perform.”
Who were the artists with the national band?
“People like the late Zeal Onyia was there, Bobby Benson was there as well; he tried to play with me when the Queen joined me on stage but ran back when she went to meet the National Band. They had Dele Bamgbose, E.C Arinze, Charles Uwegbue, Eddy Okonta, and other big artists. It was a big National Band, but the music name that time was Victor Olaiya,” he boasted.
For his stellar performance at the State Ball, Olaiya got a warm handshake from Queen Elizabeth, who was fascinated by his act.
“Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe brought the Queen to me and I was privileged to shake hands with her.”
And you consider that one of your highpoints?
“Of course yes; to shake hands with the Queen at that time? Ha, it was a big deal o! My family was on top of the world then,” he enthused.
What was their reaction?
“Of course, they were happy that their son played at the Independence Ball and also shook hands with the Queen. Do you know what that means? Shaking hands with the Queen? In fact, 50 years after, I had to play for the Queen during CHOGOM meeting in Abuja and they had to barricade the queen. People like Sardauna of Sokoto, Ooni of Ife and all other dignitaries had to stay behind the barriers, while the Queen, the Duke, and Obasanjo (Olusegun) were in the middle; nobody was allowed into the Arena. The hall was fortified with soldiers and security operatives; they were all introduced before the queen shook hands with them.”
After rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty at the Independence State Ball, Victor Olaiya returned home a star.
“I was highly respected in a big way. In fact, from the funds I got, I had to change the car of my head of the family, which I had never disclosed to anybody till this interview.”
What was your reason for the gesture?
“He approved of my going for the Ball and gave me his blessings and that of the whole family. The head of my family then was my elder brother; my father had died then, but my mother was still alive.”
That means you got your Independence the same time with Nigeria?
“Oh, yes, I will agree with you on this,” he said with another round of laughter.
And what happened to the remaining money?
“I started investing; I invested in a musical instrument. At that time, it wasn’t easy to buy musical instruments let alone getting the accessories. The only shop that was dealing in that was the Kingsway Shop; they were only interested in the fast-moving instruments.”
With the aim of helping to develop live music in Nigeria, Victor Olaiya invested most of his earning in the business.
“We needed it and I was spending more time in the industry. So, I thought that the best thing to do is to invest in the business so that we that play the instruments will find it easy getting the spare parts and replacements for our instruments. When I started music, the trumpet I used was welded here and there because we didn’t have the opportunity for replacement and repairs.”
Before coming to limelight, Olaiya played in many bands, including the ones with the name and those with no name.
“I was just playing for playing sake. Eventually, we decided to form a band and we styled it the Cool Cat Orchestra, jointly manned by Bala Miller and myself. People like Chris Ajilo came from England. Dennis Lawani and others came and joined us to give the band a boost. The Cool Cat eventually metamorphosed to The All-Stars Orchestra, which we have today.”
WHILE some of his colleagues saw settling down and having a family as a big barrier to their career then, young Olaiya was ever ready to have his own family.
“Over the years, I’ve been respectably married with children. My father practised polygamy and I think I took after my father after some years. But much as I practise polygamy, I ensured I keep a home. While touring, making money and making name for myself, I was of the opinion that I must have a family. After all said and done, I must return to my family.”
In those days, Olaiya and his band used to travel round the country three times in a year.
“We would go to Sokoto, Kano, Maiduguri, Gombe, and Yola areas; then move down to Makurdi, Enugu, Onitsha, Calabar, and Port Harcourt; this was the time I took the decision to invest.”
Olaiya had played in many clubs where he was chased out eventually. This might have influenced his decision to build the Stadium Hotel, with an expansive space specifically designed for live gigs.
“At a point, I didn’t have a place to play; I resorted to touring. Because I was always touring, I was lucky to be nominated for the Miss Nigeria Wagon by the Daily Times. That opportunity gave me extra publicity and I was very happy to be part of the project. I was thrown out several times, but by the grace of God, here am I today, owning the ageless Stadium Hotel and the All-Stars Orchestra led by Victor Abimbola Olaiya (OON),” he said.
How come the OON nomination?
“Well, I think the papers kept writing and they were wondering why people like Dr. Victor Olaiya, who had entertained troupes during the civil war, took highlife to Congo when I played with O.K Jazz and so on, were not given national honour. The newspapers kept on making noise about it and finally, I got nominated; I wasn’t actually expecting it. Among all the Nigerian musicians, I think I have the highest National Honour, the Officer of the Order of Niger (OON). It wasn’t easy; I got a lot of congratulatory messages from fans, friends, and colleagues.”
Unlike most parents, who would not allow their children to play music, Victor Olaiya actually encouraged and paved the way for his children to learn to play musical instruments.
“I felt I should leave a legacy; maybe that has to be Dr. Victor Abimbola Olaiya Band. By virtue of my distribution of musical instruments and accessories, I had to request each one of my children to choose an instrument of his/her choice, which they like to learn. Bayode, Biodun, and Martins came up with the B flat trumpet; Abidemi came up with the choice of tenor and alto saxophone; Yejide the pharmacists came up with the clarinet; Toba, a former banker, who is now with Chevron, came up with her own instrument. However, all of them have Master’s Degree today.”
You love education that much?
“Sure, I didn’t have that opportunity, but I wanted them, apart from playing music, to be highly educated. I think that has caused me the regret of losing them musically; having perfected themselves in their various instruments, they are now pursuing their careers. One of them is with GTBank, one is with Globacom, the other one is an Electronics Engineer, one is with Chevron… all of them with their Master’s Degree,” he sang.
And they still play music?
“Of course, they still play; they own their instruments. Occasionally, when we get together, they usually go on stage to do what they know how to do. That has given me the opportunity to request that they obtain permission and come for the celebration so that the whole world will know that I have children, who are not only workers but also musicians.”
Over the years, Victor Olaiya has carved out a style for himself; his grey Afro hair remains his trademark.
“Of course, I kept it for a purpose; I wanted to distinguish myself from all other musicians. I like it gray; I don’t enjoy dying the hair or tying to cover the gray, no I don’t like it. I thank God Almighty for giving me that focus and giving me small, small kobo to keep body and soul together,” he joked.
IF you are still wondering why the renowned trumpeter is always carrying two white handkerchiefs on stage, then hear him out:
“I borrowed that from Louis Armstrong when he came to Nigeria to advertise Benson & Hedges; we were commissioned and I was lucky to have led the Western Region and Lagos. We all played together at the National Stadium; I led all the other bands. I remember we went to the Lagos airport to welcome him; he was lodged at the Mainland Hotel. I presented bands individually and later presented my band before the big man came on stage; he was the main act. In the end, a selection of us had to join his band to play a jam session.”
At the end, Olaiya copied two things from the jazz musician.
“I copied his white handkerchief and his cut clear musical notes. Each time you have the opportunity of listening to his music, you will find that his notes are always cut clear. Though he graduated in using one handkerchief, I copied rightly or wrongly by using two. Most importantly, he’s always very neat,” Olaiya remarked.
If given the opportunity to make a request from God, Olaiya would surely ask for forgiveness.
“I will ask him for forgiveness for those things I must have committed consciously or unconsciously. And that if I have to come back to this world again, I would love to be a musician and play the same role I’ve always played.”
For Olaiya, there’s no regret being a musician.
“The regrets might be there, but I don’t consider them regrets; I see them as challenges. I want to thank God, my fans, my friends and my Sheri kokos…”
Who are the Sheri kokos?
“They are my beautiful ladies that have made my music worth a while and made Victor Olaiya who he is.”
Meanwhile, the veteran musician is working on a collaboration with Tuface Idibia, whom he considers the best of the present-day hip-hop generation.
“Having followed his musical career, I can tell you that Tuface has something to offer; his African Queen is a classic,” he submitted.
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