OBITUARY: Victor Olaiya, the ‘trumpet god’ who ditched US scholarship for music


If you lived out the 50s and 70s or learned about the oldies from elderly accounts of the Nigerian civil war, then you most likely would have heard of Victor Olaiya, the unrelenting “trumpet god” whose music ruled even the lips and hearts of federal troops as they prepared themselves for daily sporadic exchanges with the then-opposition.

Even when assumptions had it that the music legend gave up on his longtime obsession, one which had put him at odds with his family, Olaiya yodelled it hard at 86 that he’ll never quit music, joining Tuface in 2013 for a love-evoking performance that remains etched in the minds of couples till date.

Yet, it came as a shocker on Wednesday after news broke that the 89-year-old music legend breathed his last at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), after a brief illness. And as showbiz moguls and music consumers poured in their condolences alike, it became more evident that, despite his raving popularity, Olaiya couldn’t defy death’s authoritative summon.

Ditching his US scholarship for a music career

It’s often the dream of many parents that their wards get to explore educational systems in more developed countries within Europe or America. But only a few get to be availed such opportunities, sometimes on account of situations hinged on monetary impediments.

In Olaiya’s case, he was said to have been born into a wealthy family during his time. His reservations about the field of study his parents had looked to see him go for wasn’t about a dearth of opportunities either as only a few had the privileges that knocked at his door at the time.

Yet, driven by sheer passion, Olaiya defied his parents to pursue his career as a musician, after he was said to have earned a scholarship to study civil engineering at Howard University in the United States. He had aced his school certificate examination back in 1951 and later moved to Lagos.

“They believed naturally, that, anyone who plays music is an irresponsible person who belonged to the group of Indian hemp smokers. To them, music was a No-Go-Area until providence smiled at me,” a source quoted the late musician to have said while describing his parents’ opposition.

Another unpopular account had it that he was still in Owerri when he got his Howard scholarship but had to give up the opportunity after an uncle he lived with at the time refused to lend him some money with which to travel. Thus, he started doing music as an alternative and became famous for it.

Earned the rank of lieutenant colonel, played for troops

Having earned a reputation for his skill as an “unrivalled” creative in the 1960s, Olaiya was honoured with the rank of a lieutenant colonel in the Nigerian army during the civil war and his band played for the troops at various locations in a development which saw him travel to the Congo to perform.

“I took highlife to Congo during the Congo civil war and our troops went there to assist them. I was seconded to Congo to take highlife with my band to the place. I think I did my best to make the troops happy, to be able to popularize highlife music of Nigeria,” the late singer reportedly said.

Performed at state ball during Queen Elizabeth II’s visit

In a feat considered to be befitting of only the best in music at the time, the Cool Cats, Olaiya’s band, which the singer had formed back in 1954, was chosen to play at the state ball when Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom visited Nigeria in 1956.

He also played when Nigeria became independent and with the American jazz musician Louis Armstrong in 1963, when the country became a republic. This saw him rename his band to the All-Stars Band after they took to stage at the 1963 International Jazz Festival in Czechoslovakia.

“I wish I can remember all those that were present. But I know Tafawa Balewa was there, Nnamdi Azikwe was present, and the last governor-general representing the queen, James Robertson was very much present,” he said while speaking of the state ball.

“My band played at that state ball not only at the state ball but also three years after when Nigeria was attaining the republican status, my band also played. All the ministers available at that time  were present.”

Lagos businessman, a one-time NUM president

Once boasting of having one of “the biggest musical instrument shop, which deals in importation, distribution, and marketing, in West Africa,” Olaiya, aside from music-making, was said to have been into the sales of musical accessories, owning a shop at the Tinubu Square in Lagos.

After facing hard times with hoteliers, who frequently ejected his band in moves that the late singer readily attributed to the workings of his rivals, Olaiya resorted to building his own club, which eventually became a Lagos hotel, where he treats Nigerians to the soothing rhythm of his music.

“I tried to put up a place of my own to free musicians from unwarranted harassment. I started saving towards building a night club but it eventually metamorphosed into a hotel. I just wanted a place where I could play and people could come and listen,” he was quoted to have said.

“As providence would have it, I ended up building a hotel enclosing a nite club which today we named ‘Pappingo Nite Club Of Stadium Hotel’. The stadium Hotel has been in existence since 1972.”

With a Lagos hotel to his name, he is also said to have been a one-time president of the Nigerian Union of Musicians while being in the routine of annually attending Germany’s music exhibition usually held in Frankfurt.
The open courtyard Photo Credit: Eromo Egbejule

Shared the stage with Tuface

It’s no surprise that Innocent Idibia, Nigerian Afropop legend, was among the firsts to register his pain after Olaiya breathed his last. The duo had jointly taken to stage while making a video for the remix to Olaiya’s song ‘Baby Mi Da’.

Having learned to play in Igbo, Itsekiri, Hausa, Yoruba and so many other languages ⁠— a feat which had set him out as unrivaled during his time — Olaiya had no problem spritzing his music style with deft touches of Afropop from Tuface in a project that made waves, especially among couples.

Although he admitted the decision was prompted after a recording academy had eventually made the call, the singer had explained that his team had long been contemplating the idea of making something of that nature at the highlife All-Stars Club he had formed many years back.

Tuface, while mourning the late singer’s passing, wrote: “Devastated by the news of the passing of Victor Olaiya: maestro, mentor, legend. Thanks for the beautiful music. Thanks for the inspiration. Blessed for the honour of sharing a mic and stage with you. Rest in peace baba.”

‘Highlife has great future. For it, I shall live. For it, I shall die’

Addressing claims that the highlife genre is threatened due to contortions among contemporaries, the late singer had said every other genre in Nigeria during his time — like Fuji reggae, afrobeat, and juju — “borrowed a leaf” from highlife in a manner that leaves the genre indispensable.

While he admitted there has been a divergence in terms of the themes towards which music gravitates, where the oldies would rather make constructive, educative, highly philosophical songs, he hedged that whatever might be said of the contemporaries remains a matter of opinion.

“What people say of the present day’s musicians quite frankly is a question of opinion. What they are doing is not what we tried to do during our own time. Whether that is correct or incorrect, I leave it to the public. We’re all in the same profession. They’re also playing music,” Olaiya added.

“High life has a great future. For it I live, for it, I shall die. Everybody wants to talk about highlife. Fuji, Fuji reggae, Afrobeat, juju, all of them had to borrow a leaf or two from high-life to enable them to stand. No type of music can threaten the existence of high life music.”

Like Osita Osadebey, Roy Chicago, Eddy Okonta, and Adeolu Akinsanya and other highlife legends, Olaiya very well knew the significance of those words. The much-acclaimed ‘evil genius of highlife’ ended up, like he vowed he would, living for his genre and as well dying for it. He was 89.

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