Nigerian highlife musician Victor Olaiya has died, He passed on February 12 in Lagos, Nigeria. He was 89.
Olaiya, aka Dr. Victor Abimbola Olaiya OON, was a trumpeter known as “The Evil Genius of Highlife,” a Ghanian genre that fuses traditional Akan melodies with Western instruments. He first broke out on his own after leaving the Bobby Benson Jam Session Orchestra to start his own band the Cool Cats in 1954.
Trumpeteer & Highlife Legend
Victor Abimbola Olaiya (31st December 1930 – 12th February 2020) Trumpeteer & Highlife Legend A highly influential musician, active in the 1950s & early 60s, Alhaji Alade Odunewu of the Daily Times described him as “The Evil Genius of Highlife.”
His parents, Alfred Omolona Olaiya and Bathsheba Owolabi Motajo, came from Ijesha-Ishu in Ekiti State. His father’s house called Ilọijọs Bar stood on 2 Bamgbose Street, Lagos Island until it was demolished on 11 September 2016.
At an early age, he learned to play the Bombardon and the French Horn. After leaving school he moved to Lagos, where he passed the school certificate examination in 1951 and was accepted by Howard University, US, to study civil engineering.
Olaiya instead pursued a career as a musician, to the disapproval of his parents. He played with the Sammy Akpabot Band, was leader and trumpeter for the Old Lagos City Orchestra and joined the Bobby Benson Jam Session Orchestra.
In 1954 Olaiya formed his own band, the Cool Cats, playing popular highlife music. His band was chosen to play at the state ball when Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom visited Nigeria in 1956, and later to play at the state balls when Nigeria became independent in 1960 and when Nigeria became a republic in 1963.
On the latter occasion, Olaiya shared the stage with the American jazz musician Louis Armstrong.
During the Nigerian Civil War of 1967–70, Olaiya was given the rank of a lieutenant colonel (honorary) in the Nigerian army and his band played for the troops at various locations. The Cool Cats later traveled to the Congo to perform for United Nations troops.
Victor Olaiya as a Businessman
Olaiya also ran a business that imported and distributed musical instruments and accessories throughout West Africa and established the Stadium Hotel in Surulere. In 1990, Olaiya received a fellowship of the Institute of Administrative Management of Nigeria. For a period, he was also president of the Nigerian Union of Musicians.
Olaiya’s music bridges between Ghanaian highlife and what would become Afrobeat. His musical style was influenced by James Brown, with horn parts harmonized in Brown’s style, as opposed to the mostly unison lines of Afrobeat. The music includes the swinging percussion of Tony Allen, but not the syncopated style that Allen later pioneered. Olaiya released an album with Ghanaian highlife musician E. T. Mensah.
Both the drummer Tony Allen and vocalist Fela Kuti played with Olaiya and went on to achieve individual success.