Victor Olaiya “Evil Genius” (1931-2020) – Dami Ajayi
Victor Olaiya, highlife maestro, trumpeter, vocalist and band leader, died in the afternoon of Wednesday February 12, 2020. He was 89 years old. An accomplished trumpeter, he was one of the key figures of highlife, the popular dance music that became the rave on the West African Coast from the 50s. Even though highlife, as a musical form, originated from Sierra Leone and Ghana, it was in Ghana that it gained its name, as a ball room dance enjoyed by the “elitist natives”. Emmanuel Teytey Mensah, a Ghanaian pharmacist, famed to have knocked out his incisors for the greater calling of blowing the trumpet is often seen as one of the founding fathers of highlife music. Another founding father was Bobby Benson whose Jam Orchestra was the stomping ground for some of the finest Highlife musicians Nigeria has ever had. A young Victor Olaiya played in Bobby Benson’s Jam Orchestra.
Historians are not exact about how highlife music became a Nigerian staple, but by the late 40s and 50s, this music held Nigeria’s nightlife by the scruff of the neck. Hotel dance halls and night clubs had resident bands and Saturday nights were special. By the 50s, Victor Olaiya was already a highlife music star. A young Fela Kuti had a stint as a trumpeter in Olaiya’s Cool Cats band before his own career as a band leader took off. Victor Olaiya played at the Independence Ball before important dignitaries. If there is any music that encapsulates the nostalgia and optimism of Nigeria’s independence, it is highlife music. Imagine the piquant tunes of the trumpet piercing the night as the Union Jack was lowered and Nigeria’s National Flag was hoisted, fluttering bi-colour, triband and proud. When this optimism was dashed in the ethnic flavoured coup and countercoup that devolved into a civil war, highlife music also tracked this era. War hardly provided opportunity for nocturnal pleasures because curfews emptied the streets of people. There was also the fact that a fine proportion of highlife musicians and instrumentalists were also from Eastern Nigerian, hence their relocation behind the tentative territories of Biafra which brutally shrunk in a war that left millions of people dead. Even though highlife music seemed intertwined with politics, it was in itself, deeply apolitical. It had no pretentions about what it was: it was dance music for dance halls, for socialites, for nocturnal men and women, for wiggling waists, for quivering buttocks and for theatrical leg works. Victor Olaiya held Lagos down when the city became empty of highlife stars. He had a honorary army title and his band played for the Nigerian troops to entertain them during the war. In terms of honour, he was also conferred a honorary doctorate degree at the First Jazz International Festival in Prague. By far his most enduring honour was being called the “Evil Genius” of Highlife for his ability to keep people on their feet. His style of music features a unique way of playing the trumpet and his ability to sing in several Nigerian languages made his highlife a somewhat nationalistic endeavour. The Stadium Hotel in Surulere, perhaps so named for its proximity to the National Stadium, was a famous highlife spot during his active years. Today, it stands in a state of quaint disrepair yet quite functional for the old heads and unusual young oddballs and inquisitive creatures who fancy highlife music. Since old age and ill-health left Victor Olaiya a shadow of his old self, Bayowa Olaiya, banker by day and son of Victor Olaiya, holds court and renders some of the finest tunes of his now deceased father.
Olaiya’s death marks the end of a musical era in Nigeria as another original innovator of highlife bows out.