Late Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a colossus in the global music industry holding its craft down to the admiration of many in the Afrobeat genre. But there was a trumpeter and music maestro who mentored and trained Fela but got little credit – Victor Olaiya.
Victor Uwaifo, Tony Allen (Fela’s drummer), Dele Ojo (Juju musician), Yinusa Akinnibosun (saxophonist) were part of the music maestros that Olaiya trained.
Olaiya’s career started as a civil servant whilst he did music part time – something that will eventually become the core of his career.
To his shock, he was told that he was a better musician than a bureaucrat at the survey department of Lagos mainland local government. He left the job and took on music full time.
Out of his love for music, he always carried a pen in his breast pocket to write down the musical notes and phrases as they came to him.
2Face Idibi and Victor Olaiya in the video of Baby Jowo – a remix of Olaiya’s song
He was born with a silver spoon to Yoruba parents in Calabar, starting music at an early age. He was a chip off the old block – his father was a church organist while his mom was a folk singer from Oyo in Southwestern Nigeria.
According to BBC: “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. As a teenager, though, he was taught Western classical music, and played the clarinet and French horn in his school orchestra in eastern Nigeria. Years later, wielding his gold trumpet and dabbing his face with a white handkerchief, Olaiya would perform a new type of music in Nigeria that would go on to inspire a young Fela Anikulapo-Kuti among others”.
His career began in Lagos by playing ballroom music for wealthy elite audience.
He did this when he moved to Lagos and joined the Lagos City Orchestra and then the band of composer Sammy Akpabot.
Favour smiled on him when Bobby Benson (entertainer and musician; 1922 – 1983) put him under his wings. He later became the head of Bobby Benson’s Alfa Carnival Group, rising to stardom and prominence thenceforth.
Afro hair combed into a dome, with middle class Nigerians appearing overdressed in tuxedos and gowns with a cigarette stylishly tucked between the fingers was the trending art the time Olaiya was trending under Bobby Benson. That style evoked memories of the fading British Empire and transition to Nigeria’s independence.
Nigerians started getting high with Highlife in the 1950s – the British and their music were exiting the country and the locals yearned for something home brewed. Young and vibrant generation of Africans started dominating disco halls and ballrooms dancing to rhythmic Highlife sound.
The songs were sexist and romantic with exotic lyrics renting the air. It wasn’t about morales but much more about fun.
Many Nigerians often claim that old songs were morally inspiring but that was not actually the case. In 1961, one of Olaiya’s popular songs ADELEBO TO NW’OKO…A YOUNG WOMAN REFERRED TO AS “CINDERELLA SHAKING HER BUTTOCKS” finds a husband and she should “forgo education”.
At one of the peaks of his career, the man who was later described as the ‘evil genius of highlife’ played in front of Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret at the party to celebrate Nigeria’s independence in 1960.
His song became contagious and infectious – you cannot not dance when Olaiya’s song played.
Ghana Highlife influenced his career greatly. The word Highlife was minted in Ghana to describe a melodious fusion of foreign and African instruments buoyed by guitars and horns.
He was a keen admirer of the Tempo band of Highlife legend ET Mensah, who toured Nigeria multiple times from 1951. He later adopted Mensah’s style and had Ghanaian Sammy Lartey as saxophonist. Years later, Olaiya and Mensah released a joint album.
Fela comes to Olaiya
Other than being multi-talented and multi-skilled musically, he was also multi-linguist. He sang in Twi, Igbo, Efik, Pidgin and Yoruba. His band became a training ground for musicians who later transformed the fabric of African music.
Fela was one of the African music legends who was under the mentorship and tutelage of Olaiya. The Afrobeat King was part of the Cool Cats group in Lagos. He also led one other Olaiya’s bands.
Bobby Benson saw a talent in Olaiya and gave him the platform. Olaiya did the same to Fela.
“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.
But Olaiya will forever be associated with highlife, and this gradually faded from the scene until the genre became a stacked collection of dusty vinyl for senior citizens who hung onto the memories of an era when “things were good”.
The Cool Cats were no longer cool, as first Fela’s Afrobeat and later Afro pop swept succeeding generations off their feet.
Femi Kuti and Victor Olaiya
Olaiya tried to blend decades later by shooting music videos and flaunting trending swags but he never looked comfortable with the format. He was used to the disco bars, the big orchestra and the larger-than-life bands performing for dandy crowds” .
In the new millennium, one of Africa’s most prolific Afropop acts, Tuface Idibia remixed Olaiya’s Baby Jowo (baby please let’s enjoy) in 2013. That was a generous homage to the living legend but the song was not very popular as Nigerian youngsters had changed gear to Afrobeats, zeroing much more to Afropop.
Though there are several attempts to rekindle the fire of Highlife but the raging force of Afropop might not give it much breathing space. It has become a genre for the elders and tops the charts at funerals.
Apparently, Highlife may have been laid to rest with Victor Abimbola Olaiya honoured as member of Office of the order of the Niger (OON) when he passed onto glory on the 22nd of February, 2020. Hopefully, like the Afrobeat was remoulded and rekindled into Afropop, Highlife may be resurrected in future.