A Befitting Tribute to Dr Victor Olaiya – Highlife’s “Evil Genius”

A Befitting Tribute to Dr Victor Olaiya – Highlife’s “Evil Genius”

Born 31 December 1930, Victor Abimbola Olaiya (Order of the Niger, OON), was a Nigerian trumpeter who played in the highlife style.  He was born in Calabar, a port city in southern Nigeria, and capital of Cross River State sharing a common border with Cameroon. 

I must start by mentioning that I am not only in mourning, but more in celebration of his contribution to African music since the 1950s. Therefore, here is a brief history lesson for those who might not be familiar with this “unsung” hero. Dr Olaiya has been described as Highlife’s “Evil Genius.”

First, and foremost, and in the decade of the 1950s and 1960s, it is documented that he formed the Cool Cats band in 1954, performed at Nigeria’s independence ball in 1960. He was also relentless and dynamic by having renamed “Cool Cats” to the “All Stars Band” three years later in 1963 when Nigeria became a Republic. 

Second, and before his retirement from music in 2017 due to failing health, Victor Olaiya has been awarded the Order of the Niger (OON) in 2009. That is equivalent of a knighthood in Nigeria (be it an OBE or MBE).

Third, not many people know the influence Olaiya had on the much-celebrated Fela Kuti, the acclaimed Afrobeat King as captured in my previous posts on “Pop Culture Africa: Review of Creativity in the Music Industry” and another entitled “Pop Culture Africa! A Narrative on Afrobeat, Afrobeats and Highlife.” Therefore, here is some education according to the BBC following his recent demise on 12 February 2020:

Nigeria has been mourning music legend Victor Olaiya, who created Nigeria’s highlife rhythms and influenced a generation of musicians including Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

 Fourth, I was fortunate enough to undertake a review of the book by another artiste extraordinaire, Sonny Oti’s “Highlife Music in West Africa: Down Memory Lane.”  In that review, I noted that Victor Olaiya, by his coverage of the tour of Nigeria by Queen Elizabeth, showcased an image for Africa in the as 1950s by adapting highlife’s ability to compete in a European jazz festival. 

Fifth, this maestro was also fluent in many of Nigeria’s indigenous languages and this was reflected in his songtexts:

His song-texts also functioned as national unification tools. He composed songs in Igbo, Efik, Hausa and his own native Yoruba language to communicate more effectively. 

Song-texts of African urban popular music rhythm could be entertaining, but they are functionally the voice of the community. They are equally the conscience of African societies. It is through these lyrics that African domestic and external politics can be monitored. I did sound out in my review of Oti’s book that:

Song-texts act as the thermometer for measuring African political, social and economic temperature. Sex and love are never publicised, they are treated with reverence; and they are also regarded as trivial and incompatible with the [more] serious problems of Africa.

 While the creative industry in Africa has been predominantly fragmented, some attention is now being accorded to the performing arts (especially music) from that geographic space – thanks to Oti’s (2009) groundbreaking work on Highlife Music in West Africa.

I acknowledge that this is an entirely new era, but yes, 2020 is another year of loss for African music, highlife, and the legendary of an unsung hero. 

Adieu Victor Olaiya.

Further reading: 

Madichie, N. (2017) Highlife Music in West Africa: Down Memory Lane, Management Research Review, Vol. 40 No. 1, pp. 116-119. https://doi.org/10.1108/MRR-08-2016-0201 

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