Editor's Note: This essay was written by Dami Ajayi and was published in The Lagos Review. This version was slightly edited and published with permission from Dami Ajayi.
Victor Abimbola Olaiya, highlife teacher, trumpeter, vocalist and band leader, died on Wednesday afternoon, February 12, 2020. He was 89 years old.
Olaiya was an accomplished trumpet player, and was one of the key figures of “highlife”, popular dance music that became a hit on the West African coast from the 1950s.
Did this thread in 2018 on Highlife music and I recall it as I do a thread this morning on the Evil Genius of Highlife music himself, Victor “Papingo Devalaya” Olaiya.
Olaiya was born in Calabar to Yoruba parents and was a very brilliant chap growing up, with a love for music. https://t.co/N9zXX480yP
– Demore Olarewaju (@DemolaRewaju) February 14, 2020
After my nth failure this morning to imitate my own children (should that of “own” should be in brackets maybe?) In the joys of highlife music, I will now make a thread about highlife and I hope to start the other people's children (i.e. my followers) in that form of music.
I made this thread in 2018 about highlife music and I remember it as a thread this morning about the very evil genius of highlife music, Victor “Papingo Devalaya” Olaiya.
Olaiya was born in Calabar of Yoruba parents and was very bright as a boy, with a love for music.
The highlife as a musical form originated in Sierra Leone and Ghana, but it was in Ghana that it gained its name as a ballroom dance enjoyed by the “elitist natives.”
In 1952, Olaiya formed her own band called “Cool Cats”, which was later renamed “All Stars Band”.
Emmanuel Teytey Mensah, a Ghanaian pharmacist – famous for having broken the incisors due to the vocation 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 meeting place for some of the best highlife music musicians that Nigeria has had.
A young Victor Olaiya played in the Jam Orchestra of Bobby Benson.
Historians are not exact on how hiughlife music became a staple of Nigeria, but in the late 1940s and 1950s, this music stormed Nigeria's nightlife. Hotel dance halls and nightclubs had bands and Saturday nights were special.
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RH6XV_5kLYk (/ embed)
In the 1950s, Victor Olaiya was already a highlife star. Young Fela Kuti was a trumpeter in the Olaiya Cool Cats band before his own career as a band leader took off.
Victor Olaiya played in the Dance of Independence before important dignitaries.
If there is any music that sums up the nostalgia and optimism of Nigeria's independence, it is highlife music. Imagine the spicy trumpet melodies that go through the night while the British flag is raised and the Nigerian national flag is raised, fluttering, bicolor, tribal and proud.
When this optimism was truncated by the coup and backlash with ethnic dyes that became civil war, highlife music also kept track of this era.
The war barely provided an opportunity for nightly pleasures because curfews left the streets empty.
There is also the fact that a good proportion of highland musicians and instrumentalists were also from eastern Nigeria, hence their relocation behind the provisional territories of Biafra, which were brutally reduced in a war that left millions dead.
Although highlife music seemed intertwined with politics, it was deeply apolitical. I had no pretensions about what it was: it was dance music for dance halls, for people in society, for night men and women, for wagging at the waist, for the trembling of the buttocks and for plays.
Victor Olaiya stayed in Lagos when the city was empty of highlife stars.
He had an honorary military title and his band played for Nigerian troops to entertain them during the war. In terms of honor, he was also awarded an honorary doctorate at the First International Jazz Festival in Prague. By far, his most lasting honor was to be called the “evil genius” of highlife for his ability to make people resist.
His music style is characterized by a unique way of playing the trumpet and his ability to sing in several Nigerian languages made his highlife a somewhat nationalistic effort. The Stadium Hotel in Surulere, Lagos, perhaps named for its proximity to the National Stadium, was a famous highlife place during its active years.
Currently, its state is of picturesque deterioration, but quite functional for extravagant and unusual old and young heads and curious creatures who like highlife music.
Old age and poor health left Victor Olaiya as a shadow of his former self. His son Bayowa Olaiya, receives attention and plays some of the best melodies of his now deceased father.