Sir Victor Olaiya: A bridge-builder

Sir Victor Olaiya


Sir Victor Olaiya

Sir Victor Olaiya, the highly talented trumpeter and highlife musician was the undisputed bridge across cultures and generations

Sylvester Asoya

To followers of his music, Sir Victor Olaiya lived for creativity, love, highlife, cross-cultural relationships and national unity. He also loved the trumpet, an instrument that defined his music and also took him to places. Therefore, he was without doubt, one of Nigeria’s most distinguished trumpeters and highlife musicians.

As a boy, he attended schools in the then Eastern Nigeria where he immersed himself in Igbo language and culture. This early exposure to many tribes in Eastern Nigeria, including his proficiency in both Efik and Ibibio languages, and Itsekiri language as well, later proved useful to his career in the studio and on the performing stage. But Olaiya was in a class by himself. Aside being in the exclusive league of musicians who composed and performed songs in other languages, he was also well known for his great works, patriotism, industry, and organizational abilities, particularly among musicians.

For radio listeners back in the day, especially in the old Anambra State and other Igbo speaking communities, Olaiya was a folk hero. Anyi Ga Naa, one of his hit songs with literal translation in Igbo as (our time is up) was popular and pervaded the airwaves. Among radio presenters, it was well-liked and the preferred song for closing credits at the end of their programmes. No doubt, his ability as a polyglot stretched his fan base and audience in Nigeria and other parts of the world.

Listening to Olaiya, it is easy to know the things that inspired him. For those who may not be familiar with his great works, he drew inspiration from themes around everyday life. He was also motivated by unity, solidarity, love, relationships, culture, the opposite sex and the working class. He was an innovative artiste who was respected for his creativity and commitment to his art.

Early in his career, he worked hard and etched his name in stone. He also attracted the needed recognition and acceptance from his fans and even official quarters. So, when Elizabeth 11 visited Nigeria in 1956, he was on hand to perform. He was also a regular performer at state banquets, including Nigeria’s independence celebration in 1960 and eventually when Nigeria became a Republic in 1963. Olaiya was indeed, a thorough-bred musician who distinguished himself locally and internationally. At some point in his career, he shared the performing arena with the famous Louis Armstrong, the respected and well known American trumpeter. He was also one of the artistes who entertained Nigeria’s troops during the Congo troubled days in the early 1960s, a role he was to later play during Nigeria’s Civil War from 1967-70.

Like a good musician that he was, he never stopped thinking or creating. Conscious of the future, he brought his vintage work, Baby Jowo to this generation in 2013 when he joined 2BABA, a far younger musician in a spectacular duet facilitated by Kunle Afolayan, a film maker. The remix which took highlife lovers and young people by surprise due to the principal actors, remains a classic.

No one fully appreciates how greatly missed this iconic highlife master and trumpeter is until the person visits Stadium Hotel, his edifice at Surulere, Lagos. This was Olaiya’s major rehearsal and performance venue for many years. He also kept his musical equipment, accommodated some of his friends and maintained a functional office at Stadium Hotel. Though the hotel has lost its vibrancy and shine today but the regular presence of two of his most trusted staff is drawing attention to what loyalty and love mean.

Gbenga Adewusi, Olaiya’s manager for decades is not only loyal and dedicated; he also possesses a good attitude. “Baba was not just a father, he was god”, he says to the crew from alice. He continues: “We are still here every day working in his absence because of what he did for us. Where is the salary or money that makes us come to work all the time? This was a man we worked for, now he is dead for over a year and we are still here. What does that tell you? We miss him and as you can see, the shock is still here. Before you came, we were discussing about Baba. And if you look round, you will see his photographs everywhere. We want to see him any time we turn to any corner”.

Another staff, Mrs Remi Obajemi who joined Olaiya over forty years ago as a young girl, expresses the same emotion. “Baba was a very nice man and he loved people. He used to gather us together to know how we were doing. If you had a problem, he would solve it if it was within his capacity. We miss him a lot but I thank God for meeting him because I learnt many things from him. In fact, he was a man of his words. Anything he said or promised, he stood by it. He was a good father to all of us”, she says.

Olaiya was truly loved by many, not just by his band members and staff. Other people who came across him say a great deal of good things about his conduct, professionalism, openhandedness, discipline, love for others and outgoing nature. Many years ago during an interview with a reporter, he was quoted, saying: “Highlife music has a great future because for it, I live and for it, I shall die”. Now in death, highlife and lovers of this genre of music, remember him. Indeed, highlife was his life! He lived happily with it and eventually died still loving it.

But aside highlife that brought fame, honour and limitless opportunities to Olaiya, this unusual trumpeter and highlife genius will also be remembered for changing the course of the music he loved for good. This is in addition to the fact that the world will remain thankful for the gift of such a great man who will always be remembered for good and for bringing his classics to a new generation. Among his popular works are: Mofe Mu Yan, Iya Jemila, Baby Mi Da, So Fun Mi, Omolanke and Ilu Le O.

-Sylvester Asoya, journalist who once worked with TheNEWS, wrote this article, first published in alice, the in-flight magazine of Air Peace.