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Victor Olaiya: The Evil Genius of Highlife

By Adeola Balogun


Dr. Victor Olaiya qualifies to be called a legend, thanks to his music career. His highlife genre of music made great impact in the past, it is currently rocking the present, with promises of a greater hold on the future. At 76, the celebrated highlife maestro still pulls the crowd at his periodic live performances.


He reveals in this interview with ADEOLA BALOGUN the secret behind his staying power. He also recalls his memorable experiences over the years, especially how one of his tracks landed him in police trouble.


At 76, you still look agile and very strong. What is the secret?

The secret is God’s grace. God first, and then dedication to duty. I try to exercise a lot while playing on stage. Music, as much as it is my profession, is also a hobby. While on stage, I do a number of exercises and showmanship. I twist myself, go up, down, blow the horns, thus exercising the lungs and the limbs and all parts of my body, including the brain. I believe that has been keeping me going.


We don’t hear much of highlife nowadays, what’s the problem?

I think that is a matter of opinion because every music in Nigeria borrows one thing or the other from highlife. Name it: Fuji, Juju, Afro juju, Afro anything; they all take one or two things from highlife. The view that highlife stuff does not seem to dominate the music scene is a matter of opinion as well because, if you get to where Dr. Victor Olaiya performs at the Papingo Night Club of the ultra-modern Stadium Hotel every Saturday night from 11pm till sunrise the following day, it is highlife galore. But you see, Fuji and others seem to be dominating the social scene because they can be played on the streets, in fact just anywhere. But we in highlife have prestige and we try to protect that; and because of this, we don’t cheapen our type of music by just playing it anywhere.


Why did you go into music in the first place?

With me, professional music happened to be accidental because in those days when I crossed to Lagos from the eastern part, I was not to be seen playing music. It runs naturally in the family, because my father was a church organist in Calabar while my mother was a leader of a cultural group in Calabar too. I was to go abroad to study Engineering as well as Cost and Management Accounting. But as providence would have it, I just decided to play music for a short while. But here I am today, I thank God.


You mentioned Calabar…

I was born and brought up in Calabar before I moved to Owerri, and then Onitsha where I learnt to play the big flat French trumpet in the African College, Onitsha. I moved down to Lagos in the early 40s to further my secondary education. I played in so many bands like that of the late Bobby Benson, the late Prof. Samuel Akpabot, the Lagos Orchestra before I joined the late A D. Cole to found the Cool Cats Band, which later metamorphosed to All Stars International.


What was the reaction of your parents when you embraced music as your profession?

Oh, they never liked it. They never knew, they shouldn’t have known. Even my big brothers with whom I was staying when I came to Lagos did not know in good time. My people believed at the time that those playing music were school drop-outs, miscreants, irresponsible elements, Indian hemp smokers and those who would end up as drunkards and never do-wells. So, with a consciousness of that impression, I was so secretive about my music. This went on till a very beautiful morning when the Daily Times, in one of its cover reports, came out with the story, Victor Olaiya nominated to play at Nigeria’s Independence state box. Immediately, a meeting of the whole family in Lagos was called at the Tinubu family house to deliberate on whether the Victor Olaiya was my own or not. And when the cat was let out of the bag, they said well, there was no going back. They all prayed for me to make a success of it and wished me well.


How far did your career in music allow to go in your pursuit of education?

In those days, we had junior and senior Cambridge; I passed them all. Then I started taking correspondence courses in Cost and Work Accounting, which today is called Cost and Management Accounting. I passed part one, but I found out that I could not continue because of my music business. But with the part one, I could get a departmental transfer from the Federal Survey Department where I was a topographical and lithographical draughtsman, to the Lagos City Council where I was placed in charge of the Cost and Works ledger account.


Even while your music business was on...

Yes. I was doing it privately until I resigned when I could no longer combine the two. I then faced music squarely; and since then, here I am.


Was there any rivalry between you and your contemporary highlife musicians?

Well, then we had many highlife bands. In fact, highlife dominated the music scene, not only in Nigeria but in the entire West Africa. The competition was terribly keen. Then, we had the Empire Rhythm Orchestra, Bobby Benson and some other bands around. Those were the days the late King Mensah of Ghana was visiting and swept all the money away to Ghana.


We in Nigeria then decided to put heads together to check him. Actually, Mensah fell in love with a girl in Calabar and they got married. We decided to give him a good fight. Although he was a great musician, highly talented, we did everything to reduce his frequent incursions into Nigeria. Eventually we succeeded in doing that and after some time, he flew in from Ghana and walked up to me to request that I do an album with him which we styled the Highlife Giants of West Africa. Mensah was a great musician, he conceded the arragement of the recording to me, while I conceded the harmony to him. The album sold very well.


Can you recall a memorable crowd you thrilled as a performer?

In London, at the Maiderville Hall in 1963. The hall was so jampacked that a needle could not find a place. It was great. Another one was in Prague, Czechoslovakia where I was invited to represent the African continent. There were many bands at the jazz festival. I had to demonstrate that jazz originated from Africa. I took along some cultural musical instruments which I incorporated into playing jazz. I started with highlife with those instruments, then went to jazz. Another memorable performance was when I entertained troops of the Nigerian Army at the war front in Makurdi. I think I had between 12 to 15 thousand soldiers in the audience. There was no hall to accommodate such number then. Another gig that I had was in Accra Airport Hotel, on my way to Czechoslovakia. It was a fantastic performance. I was applauded and the event was given a good coverage.


And you made money?

Of course, I made money (laughter)


Are you not worried that there is not a place yet where a researcher can go to and do a study on you as an institution?

Well, it is a question of opinion. Many people, mostly from overseas, do come here to interview me, do their stories which they don’t bother to release here anyway. And if you go to the internet too, there are a lot you can get on me there.


Why were you called the evil genius of highlife?

They thought I moved highlife music out of the ordinary. Then, it was believed that my highlfe was a little bit out of this world, beyond explanation. This was why Alhaji Alade Odunewu of the Daily Times styled me the Evil Genius of Highlife.


How did you handle the ladies who must have flocked around you because of your fame?

Well, as usual, women do the greater publicity for musicians. There is no gainsaying that fact. You have to move along with them and I tried to be nice to them. But occasionally, you had to say the truth, that is, sing something peculiar to them which are true. But this often made me to fall out of favour with them.


How do you mean?

There was this number I composed which put me in trouble with every police woman in the country then. The song goes like this: Bo ba ma laya/ko lo sora/ma se fe olopa laya/ ijangbon ni/kekereke lakuko nko (meaning: Young men, be careful not to have a police woman as wife because of the danger inherent in that).


They became enraged. They circulated among themselves the particulars of my Beetle car then, the number, the colour – it was a maroon red car. Each time I drove around and they saw me at the checkpoints, they said park there and it was not funny. I was always in trouble with them (laughter). The gimmick I used then was I reduced the publicity for the number and played less of it. Eventually, I thought of something else to win them back. 
How did you do that?

I composed other songs to praise them. Some of the songs are Omo Pupa, Iye Jemila, So fun mi, Ajike mi o, Jojolo and a host of others. My critical songs about ladies then were true; but you know, human beings do not always want the truth. For example now, all ladies wear wigs; but if you go out and compose a song about that, the ladies might likely want to cut your throat (laughter)


And you got married?

Yes. Respectably and with good children.


Did your music and your life as a popular artiste affect your marriage?

It did not in the true sense of it. I tried to make my loved ones understand the stock in trade of my profession. I made sure that the ladies did not come into my marital home, let alone coming to disturb my wives and children. Though there is no way something like that would not want to rock your home, my ‘Cherrycocos’ were very understanding


Your ‘Cherrycocos’, you mean your wives?

Yes, my beautiful ‘Cherrycocos’ (laughter)


Are they many?

Yes, they are. They understand because I always took them out to watch me perform within and outside Nigeria.


What made you a polygamous man?

I am from a polygamous home, and I must say that it runs in my family.


How did you manage the peculiar problems associated with polygamy, especially as an artiste?

I had to devise means (laughter). I tried to educate my wives that this is the trade and that they had to learn how to cope with it.


What about your children, did you train them?

Yes, I tried to do that because almost all of them are graduates, except one or two who are undergraduates of the University of Lagos. One will complete his course of study this year and the other one next year. Among my children I have engineers, pharmacists, bankers, electrical electronics engineers, computer experts and agriculturists. I have them in the armed forces too. But predominantly, they play music.


I was about asking that.

In my band, I have four of my children–two on the trumpet, one on tenor sax, one on the guitar. And they all play the piano. They read music and they are all working at the same time.


So, when do you intend to retire? At least you have those who can take over from you already?

Well, I hope to retire when the stars lose their glory (laughter). Otherwise, until the end of life story!


You believe you still have the energy to continue?

Yes, of course! You just have to be at my shows, a try will convince you.


You still pull crowd among the elite, is that why you don’t want to retire?

For those who still appreciate my music, I owe them that, to continue. But beyond that, I don’t see any reason to retire.


You don’t record again, why?

I have stopped recording meanwhile. I realised that a number of people prefer my oldies, my evergreens. Most of the young artistes do come to ask my permission to either do a remix of my music or a reproduction, and I don’t hesitate unnecessarily to give them the permission. But if anyone approaches me for a special recording and can afford my fees, I will enter the studios. Like when Mike Adenuga approached me for a highlife version of a jingle, I went to the sudio and did it for him.


The present generation prefers old music, does it mean that contemporary artistes have failed to satisfy them?

If I may put it this way, the present generation of artistes are either lazy or they get stuck so early. For instance, I want to refer you to a number, Easy Motion Tourist, it is my original composition.


But Fatai Rolling Dollar and King Sunny Ade sang it…

They all adapted it from my original composition. If reference was made to the Performing Rights Society in England, you would find the name of the author as Dr. Victor Olaiya. What happened was that one of my guitarists, the late J. O. Araba left the band and went into recordings and he reproduced this particular number in Yoruba. I did it in Igbo dialect, Epe Nmadu Epe, many years ago. And then everybody started to sing it. Today there is hardly any nightclub where my song is not played. The artistes can sit down and compose serious songs on their own. You can see now that the hip-hop artistes are trying to do something innovative, but most of the lazy ones would prefer to take your song, join it with others and reproduce. It is not the best. My thinking is that anyone who does that is making me to be more popular because people will say, ‘Oh, that is Victor Olaiya’s song.’


Your popular Omo Pupa was played on the internet this morning. When did you do that song?

Oh, I did Omo Pupa in the late 50s, it is over 50 years now.


What about your royalties, are they rolling in?

Yes I get my royalties, especially from abroad, because our radio stations here don’t pay. But I belong to the Performing Rights Society overseas. Here, they don’t do the logging of your music used on airtime.


Why can’t you sue?

I can, but the problem is that most of our lawyers here don’t specialise in performing rights or Copyright law. We have just enacted a copyright law here to protect us. Twenty-something years ago, we supported the boy Ayilara to sue the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria. The matter went to court. G.O.K. Ajayi appeared for us while the late Fani-Kayode appeared for FRCN. Over the years, FRCN banned my music, that of the late I.K. Dairo, Ebenezer Obey and Sunny Ade on air. They saw us as those at the battlefront. Later, Dairo went to beg, Obey went, then Sunny Ade and they unbanned their music. But I refused to beg and my music remained banned for more than 20 years on FRCN.


Why didn’t you beg?

If I did, who would carry on the battle? It’s just of recent that they began to play my music on air. I guess that the old generation of broadcasters involved then had quit and the present generation might not even be aware of what transpired over 20 years ago.


Which of the three weaknesses peculiar to young and popular stars did you have–smoking, drinking and womanising?

I didn’t smoke, I rarely drank, until recently that I took a little alcohol. But in those days, I did not drink at all. But the third one, womanising, I tried a bit. You know it was peculiar to artistes, you know (laughter). You can’t run away from that, even if you want to. You surely would be attracted.


If you were given the opportunity to pick, which of your numbers would you pick as your favourite and why?

I will pick Victor Olaiya’s Incantation. It is highly philosophical, educative, rhythmic and well harmonised.