Before Victor Olaiya breathed his last at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) on February 12 at the ripe age of 89, he had seen and done it all.
Indeed, Olaiya belonged to a class of his own, and only a handful of his contemporaries could rival his impact in Nigerian music history.
How it all began
The year was 1930 and the date, December 31, when the family of Alfred Omolona Olaiya and Bathsheba Owolabi Motajo of Ijesha-Ishu, Ondo state, first heard the cry of their 20th child in their household in Calabar.
The influential family immediately christened the infant Victor Abimbola. And the name turned out to be quite prophetic.
The Decision To Do Music
Victor Olaiya grew up learning to play the Bombardon and the French horn while he attended missionary schools in Owerri and Onitsha. He would then become a master of the B flat trumpet.
When Olaiya eventually moved to Lagos in 1947, he started to play with the Lagos Street Brass Band, earning a shilling and six pence.
He went ahead to join the Sammy Akpabot Sextet All Stars, serving as leader and trumpeter for the Old Lagos City Orchestra, before securing a move as a member of Bobby Benson’s Jam Session Orchestra which had just started to play highlife music in the early 50s.
Around the same period, Olaiya sat and wrote the school certificate examination, which he passed in 1951. But he turned his back on an opportunity to study Civil Engineering at Howard University, much to the displeasure of his parents.
Soon after he joined Bobby Benson’s band, Olaiya knew he had enough talent to survive on his own.
He left to form his own band, the ‘Cool Cats’ in 1954. Olaiya, who by now could speak Igbo, Itsekiri, Hausa and Yoruba fluently due to his exposure to various cultures, dominated the airwaves and nightlife scene with several hit songs.
His band was in hot demand, essentially for its high sense of commitment and outstanding performances.
He would then lead his band to play at the state ball when Queen Elizabeth II visited Nigeria in 1956, as well as during landmark occasions in the country – such as its independence celebration in 1960 and when it became a Republic in 1963. At the latter event, he shared the stage with jazz legend Louis Armstrong.
Later, Olaiya renamed his band the All-Stars Band when his team played at the International Jazz Festival in Czechoslovakia.
An Astute Businessman
For all of his talents, Olaiya didn’t only rely on income from his band. He showed his business acumen by investing in the importation and distribution of musical instruments and accessories, which spans the entire West African sub-region.
He also established the ultra-modern Stadium Hotel in Surulere early on, where lovers of nightlife in Lagos visited in numbers for a quality time.
Victor Olaiya was tasked to lead his colleagues in the industry at some point, serving as President of the Nigerian Union of Musicians.
And while Nigeria fought its most important war in history – the Civil War of 1967-70 – Olaiya’s band was tasked to entertain the combative troops at various locations. It was during this time that he was given the honorary rank of a lieutenant colonel in the Nigerian army.
In 1990, he was conferred with the fellowship of the Institute of Administrative Management of Nigeria and another doctorate degree (honorary) by the City University of Los Angeles, California, USA.
Victor Olaiya is survived by many wives and children, including Bayode Olaiya, who has followed in his footsteps and is currently leading the All Stars band. And contrary to popular belief and report, late actress Moji Olaiya is not the musician’s daughter, but his niece.
Though Bobby Benson, Olaiya and many of their contemporaries credit Ghanaian legend E.T Mensah for popularizing highlife music in Nigeria, it is without doubt that they played important roles as pioneers of the genre.
Olaiya’s career which spanned over six decades produced hits like Baby Jowo, Omopupa, Aigana, Pambotoriboto, Opataritius, Mo fe Muyan, Jemila, Kosowo l’ode, Odale Ore, So fun mi, Omolanke, Tina Mate, among others. He released over 30 projects under labels like Polydor and Philips and officially retired in 2017.
Today, highlife music struggles for relevance among a younger generation, but Olaiya’s Stadium Hotel still stands tall and open to performances by various highlife bands and lovers of the genre.
“I think Highlife is not an easy music to play. It is not like Fuji or Apala where you can just get one or two people together and start praise-singing. In Highlife, you have to employ some technical instruments like the trumpet, saxophone (tenor and alto) and others,” Olaiya says in a 2012 interview.
Olaiya may have departed the world following a brief illness, but he was indeed a victor and history will remember him for good.
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