The Man and the Highlife Maestro: Victor Abimbola Owolabi Olaiya- (1930-2020)

It’s no news that the Highlife Maestro, Sir Dr Victor Abimbola Olaiya has gone to rest. Our team, John Adegbenro and Kayode Awojobi has put together some facts about this great man.

Dr Victor Abimbola Olaiya was born on 31 December 1930 into the family of Alfred Omolona Olaiya and Bathsheba Owolabi Motajo, who came from Ijesha-Ishu in Ekiti State, Nigeria, on December 31st, 1930 as the 20th child among 24 children in Calabar, Rivers state.

His father’s house called Ilọijọs Bar was located at 2 Bamgbose Street, Lagos Island, until it was demolished on September 11, 2016.

At an early age he learned to play the Bombardon and the French Horn before he became renowned as a Nigerian trumpeter who played in the highlife genre. Victor Abimbola Olaiya moved down to Lagos after the completion of his elementary studies, where he passed the school certificate examination in 1951 and was admitted into 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, and he was the leader and trumpeter for the Old Lagos City Orchestra.

Though extremely famous in Nigeria during the 1950s and early 1960s. Alhaji Alade Odunewu of the Daily Times described him as “The Evil Genius of Highlife”.

In 1954 Olaiya formed his own band, the Cool Cats, playing popular highlife music. Due to the acceptability of his songs, 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.

As stated by history, 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 travelled to the Congo to perform for United Nations troops, meanwhile, Olaiya renamed his band to the All Stars Band when they played the 1963 International Jazz Festival in Czechoslovakia.

Olaiya also ran a business that imported and distributed musical instruments and accessories throughout West Africa, and later 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 harmonised 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. The late Ghanaian musician, E.T. Mensah was his professional colleague who came to Nigeria and together they popularise highlife music, they released an album together.

Olaiya equally shared the stage with the American jazz musician, Louis Armstrong Both the drummer Tony Allen and vocalist Fela Kuti played with Olaiya and went on to achieve individual success. In the year 2012, he released his last album where he featured some other artists with the title “The Rough Guide To Psychedelic Africa”. This made him has over 26 albums to his credit before his demise.

Olaiya kept the details of his family away from the media. He always declines to reveal the number.

Dr Victor Abimbola Olaiya, will forever be remembered for his vast contribution to the Nigerian music world now and forever as a legend which has set a pace for others to follow.

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