The Oasis Reporters
April 28, 2020
With Victor Olaiya’s death, an important chapter in the history of Nigeria’s popular music was closed. After 60 brilliant years as a bandleader, composer, and performer of highlife music, Olaiya passed away on 12 February 2020.
Olaiya helped to popularise highlife music globally. Together with musicians like E.T Mensah of Ghana and Nigeria’s Rex Lawson and Bobby Benson, he consolidated highlife music as a pan-regional genre with particularly strong roots in Ghana and Nigeria. Long after highlife had receded into relative obscurity, he refused to let go. Instead he created a niche space for it by presiding over weekly performances at his Stadium Hotel in Surulere, Lagos. His efforts made the space a vibrant spot for nostalgic performances that recall the social life of the country’s colonial era and the decade after.
Olaiya helped to professionalise musical practice in Nigeria. He was instrumental in the founding of the National Union of Musicians (NUM), the first government-recognised association of professional musicians in the country. He was a towering inspiration to many musicians, including Bala Miller, Victor Uwaifo, Rex Lawson and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, all of whom played in his band before forming their ensembles.
Olaiya was born in 1929 in Calabar, Cross River State to Yoruba parents from Ìjès̩à-Is̩u, Èkìtì State. In 1947, he left for Lagos to begin a music career that would see him play with highlife masters like Samuel Akpabot and Bobby Benson. In 1956, He formed his group, Victor Olaiya and His Cool Cats Band. It was renamed All Stars Band in 1963.
Moving to Lagos helped him begin the process of gaining a deeper insight into his Yoruba roots. As he explained to me over multiple conversations, his music existed as an integral part of the larger cultural movement that anticipated and complemented the struggle for Nigeria’s political independence.
Not surprisingly, he and his art would become an important index of the euphoria and sense of optimism that marked the birth of an independent Nigeria. He performed at Nigeria’s independence celebration state banquet in October 1960. He also performed to Nigerian soldiers serving in the peace mission to resolve the Congo Crisis.
Olaiya will be missed for his affable personality and resplendent performance style. The white handkerchief-waving trumpeter is no more, and his Stadium Hotel will now be very different from what it used to be.
Olabode Festus Omojola, Five College Professor of Music at Mount Holyoke College and the Five College Consortium (Amherst, Hampshire, Smith Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst), USA., Mount Holyoke College