The birth of a new decade, 2020, witnessed the fall of one of the finest high life legends and smooth trumpeters, Sir Victor Abimbola Olaiya, a maestro who has his colourful prints on the foundation of high life music in Nigeria.
Although born in south-eastern Nigeria, Calabar, Cross River State on December 31, 1930, Olaiya hailed from Ijesha-Ishu in Ekiti State and died at age 89 after battling an illness whose nature was not disclosed to the public.
Olaiya ruled the airwaves of Africa’s highlife music with the likes of E. T. Mensah in the1950s and early phase 1960s, meshing a blend of Yoruba and Ghanian sounds to create his own unique rendition. He cracked the nut of highlife music after making a decision to ditch an admission offer to study civil engineering at Howard University, US.
He kicked off as a trumpeter for Sammy Akpabot’s band then moved to join the Bobby Benson Jam Session Orchestra, a musical terrace responsible for engineering the success of the majority of the high life veterans in Nigeria, both alive and dead.
In a short time, Olaiya gained a fast mastery of the craft which gained him enough recognition to become Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s music manager and critic, a position which brought him further to the limelight of high life music.
In 1954, the deceased who later became revered as ‘The Evil Genius of Highlife’ established his own brand called Cool Cats, notable for high life music. Their lyrics were didactic with a blend of enjoyable sounds which triggers a gentle movement of the body and shaking of the head.
Within a span of two years, Cool Cats gained global recognition and was selected to perform at the state ball during the first visit of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom to Nigeria in 1956. Also during Nigeria’s independence and republic coining in 1960 and 1963, Cool Cats took the stage.
Amid the reign of high life stars like Roy Chicago, Adeolu Akinsanya, Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson, E. T Mensah’s Tempos Band and other Ghanaian bands, Uwaifo was still a force to reckon with. His evergreen tracks released in Yoruba are “Iye Jamila,” “Sisi Yen”, “Omo Pupa” and “So fun mi.”
In 1963, the name Cool Cats was changed to All-Stars Band, under the aegis, they performed at the International Jazz Festival in Czechoslovakia. While managing the band, Olaiya ventured into import and distribution of musical instruments and accessories around West Africa. He also established the still existing Stadium hotel in Surulere, Lagos.
It is often said that Olaiya played a fast one on death during the Nigerian Civil war because of most of the highlife bands in that era which rendered songs in Yoruba dialect including his All-Star band were recruited into the army.
Olaiya’s style of music did not lose its relevance with the advent of contemporary artists. One of his best songs “Baby Jowo” was remixed by the talented modern age musician, 2Baba in 2013, it remains one of the best love songs in the African airwave.
Without dubiety, the evil genius of highlife is not only survived by his many wives and children but his seasoned jams which will continue to span over generations.