The elderly man dressed in a flashy, open-necked shirt speaks slowly, with a perceptible effort of breath. He is telling of a time of wondrous memories, so smiles aren’t far from his face. The camera is patient, thankfully, and the microphone is free of static.
To someone who has made a career of performing, acting to please the spectator comes naturally, such that it is hard to think of the speed as an effort of recall. “In the fifties and the sixties, it was joy. Some pubs will close at ten o’clock, while others will start at ten. They close at about midnight, one, two. From two o’clock, they close, we move around to another place, and the last port of call was usually Bobby Benson’s Caban Bamboo. In those days, it used to be the last port of call where every pub-crawler will assemble in the early hours…”
This is Dr. Victor Abimbọ́láỌláìyá, singer, trumpeter, composer, bandleader and one of the pioneers in highlife music in Nigeria, speaking in the opening minutes of Stadium Hotel, a short, likeable documentary about Nigerian music, released in 2012.
He has more to say, he has earned the right to be heard and, in a sense, the film is an eponymous homage to him. Oddly, though, his willingness to speak is disconcerting. For a viewer who had not encountered Ọláìyá before, hisfamous alias “Evil Genius of Highlife” and legendary tales of him only sleeping during the day would get in the way of easy appreciation.
Fostered, instead, was the image of a forbidding, mercurial man, quick to anger and routinely losing patience with journalists. After all, he was a trumpeter, and like another famous trumpeter who took no prisoners, must always be on his guard againstthose out to waste his time: Miles Davis, surprised to see Wynton Marsalis clutching a trumpet on his own stage during a performance in Vancouver, started yelling, “Get off the stage! Get off my stage!”
For a long time, this was the mental profile I hadofỌláìyá. Wealthy he was, but also tight-fisted. Yet I wished for an opportunity to meet him. During a research trip to Lagos, in 2015, while interviewingFẹ́mi Ẹ̀shọ́, music promoter and founder of Evergreen Music Company, I expressed this wish. Ẹ̀shọ́ called the house, to inform him of my interest and see if he was available, but received a response, probably from the wife, that the great man was sleeping.
So I imagined, I said.
No other chancecame before I returned to the US. The next time that I inquired of him from Ẹ̀shọ́,Ọláìyá was already ill, and no longer leaving the house. (This was also the time that, with the help of my research assistant, I began to file information about him in a more deliberate manner.) His death on February 12, 2020, was hard to take but not entirely unexpected—the illness was not a brief one.
It is hard to overemphasize Victor Ọláìyá’s place in highlife music, in Nigeria and the world. The circumstances of his birth and upbringing as well as his personal temperament seemed tailored for the impulses in this genre, and which would come to be its distinguishing features: urbane, cynical, genteel, sensuous, instrumentally dexterous, yetsonically harmonious.
The date of his birth is confusing. Bọ̀déỌmọ́jọlá, the respected musicologist and scholarly authority onỌláìyá’s music, puts it as December 31, 1932, while Ẹ̀shọ́has January 30, 1930. His place of birth is more straightforward: in Calabar, present-day capital of Cross River State. His parents were from Isu-Ekiti, in the Southwest. That gave him a uniquely Nigerian outlook—he spoke English and three other Nigerian languages (Hausa, Igbo, Yorùbá) equally well—and an equally unique musical training. In “Trumpet Highlife” he uses Nigerian Pidgin, punctuated with the Igbo word “ewo,” to deliver a wonderful homage to that identity. By age fourteen, playing for the school band at African College, Onitsha, he had mastered several instruments, including the French horn, the flat B clarinet, and the trumpet. Moving to Lagos in 1949, he played briefly with the Sam Akpabot Orchestra and a few other bands before joining the Bobby Benson Jam Session, the most celebrated highlife band of the time.
Everyone knows the story of the rise of highlife in Nigeria, from Ghanaian influence. Benson had made the transition to music from the variety-show format for which his Bobby and Cassandra Troupe was famous in the Forties, and several Ghanaian acts frequently toured Nigeria, selling out records and performances.
In 1951, Ọláìyá became the leader of Bobby Benson’s second band (the famous “Second Set”) that, at various times, included future masters like Eddie Okonta, Zeal Onyia, Roy Chicago, Babyface Paul, Bayọ Martins, and Billy Friday. The energy must have been massive. Barely out of his twenties, Ọláìyástruck out with a band of his own, the Cool Cats Orchestra, which he managed to stamp with hisimprimatur for sixty years, allowingfor necessary changes in name and band membership.
Nostalgic for those times, he smiles good-naturedly to the camera in Stadium Hotel,the documentary: “We were not playing then for money,” he says “because, I personally believed that I had callings in the field of music because music naturally runs in the blood of my family…” But good things came his way, and he views that as a case of good fortune. “…I was lucky to be the most popular band and reigning and accepted by the generality of the music populace in Nigeria. So the State Ball was all mine, the State Banquet was all for me, and so many other state functions were all coming my way.”
Some of this claim was exaggerated, as Ẹshọ́ informed researcher Fóyèkẹ́ Àjàó last November. Musicians like Àyìndé Bákàrè, a celebrated composer of jùjú, also performed during the independence celebrations. But the point was clear: Nigeria’s decade of independence belonged to highlife music.
A genre forged in the furnace of upward mobility across West Africa in the aftermath of the Second World War, highlife plays fancifully to the socio-political aspirations of the time—E.T. Mensah’s “Ghana We Have Our Freedom” (1957) is a good example. Relaxed, sumptuous singing, lively with snide commentaries on social manners, especially at the hands of accomplished players like Ọláìyá, Chicago,Eddie Okonta, Rex Lawson, and Adéolú Akínsànyà. It throws soft jabs at wayward, high-maintenance ladies who take the money and run, or reflects without much depth on the ways of the city. Its real strength is to fill the grooves with more-than-competent percussion, and give talented saxophonists like Babyface Paul and Orlando Julius extended solo time through endless nights at the Kakadu (Yaba) or Paradise Hotel in Ibadan.
A Night at the Club
Ọláìyá’s nightclub and playing venue, the iconic Stadium Hotel off Funshọ Williams Avenue in Sùúrùlérè, still throbbed with his shows well into the 2000s.
On a typical night, the show opens at about ten o’clock, and members of the All-Stars Band entertain the slowly building audience with old favorites like “Trumpet Highlife,” “Iyán,” “Ọmọ Pupa,” “Ṣe Fún Mi,” and so on. At half past midnight, the man himself appears from his office within the complex, to the applause of the audience. Clutching his trumpet and the signature white handkerchief, he makes his way, not to the band-stand, but to a centrally-located spot, where he sits and watches the show. He is just waiting for the signal from the audience, for he will only perform if he is “sponsored” to do so.
Soon enough, a member of the audience rises and announces herself as a sponsor of a performance, and that is when the maestro shuffles to the band-stand. From this moment, usually at a little after one o’clock, the Ọláìyá highlife show is on at full tide. He holds the handkerchief in his left hand, the trumpet in the right. (“Anytime I am with the horn, I must carry my handkerchief…the symbol of my success.”) The singing is joyous, carefree, occasionally conscientious. There’s an infectiousness to the sound dripping from him like sweat for, now, he is on a lyrical stride. The stylish synchronization of his songs have, over the years, tempered the roughness of his voice.
There is no risk of the music veering into the turbulent terrain of a socially-committed, political artform, in the manner of Afrobeatwhich, ironically,is its offspring.
In Nigerian Music in the Twentieth Century, published in 2014, Ọmọ́jọlà gives extensive attention to Ọláìyá’s music, singling out “Ìlú Le” (“Times Are Hard,” 1983) for its unique musical and social concerns. Ọmọ́jọlà is perhaps the most informed scholar to have written with discernmentabout Ọláìyá. He spoke to him regularly and audited several of his shows, and has givenquite rigorous formal analyses to songs like “Bako Daya,” “Opataricious,” “Fàmí Mọ́ra,” and “Ẹni Deérú.”
Musically, “Ìlú Le” is “monothematic…and conforms to the relatively simple and highly predictable structure of most highlife songs,” Ọmọ́jọlà writes. It is particularly suited to listening. However, while focusing “on economic hardship, its treatment is casual, noncommittal and nonanalytic; [ and “Ìlú Le”] provides neither a reflection on the remote or immediate factors responsible for the economic problems nor a mention of possible solutions.” Heargues that the song is characteristic of Ọláìyá’s music which“should be read in terms of its attachment to the process of defining the identity of the Nigerian political elite.”
This isjudicious criticism, and similar considerations apply to other titles, at any stage of the musician’s career. Who, listening to the evergreen “Ọmọ Pupa,” though, can ask for more than it already offers? A song with the uncommon power to elicit sing-along from anyone within an earshot, this light and slight composition is a ditty-like hymn in two movements, punctuated with melodious, swaying trumpet and guitar croons. Yet it does everything one asks of it—to be sung, whistled, hummed, danced to.
Ọmọ pupa ò
Ọmọ pupa lèmi nfẹ́
Ọmọ pupa ò
Jọ̀wọ́mo fẹ́ràn ẹ o
Bi mba dé London,
Ma yaaf’owoọkọ̀ ráńṣẹ́
Ọmo pupa o
Jọ̀wọ́mogbọ́’kọ̀ dé o
Fair-skinned lady is who I want
Please, I adore you
When I get to London
I shall send your transport fare
Please, I’m here to transport you.)
In English translation, the song sounds juvenile and syrupy. In fact,to the trained ear, it is an incredible, warm ode to romance, its poetry in the untroubled nest of sonic harmony. “Iye Jẹ́mílá,” another popular track with the nightclub crowd, comes on. Here is a harmless banter about a suitor’s wounded pride, its near-monotonous, leisurely lines strewn with codes addressed to a woman who gives her daughter to the highest bidder.
The night goes on. To keep the maestro on his feet, blowing and singing, the habitués also keep dancing, while pasting money to his forehead. At about 5.00am he brings the show to a close with the signature “Ọláìyá Incantation.”
Musical genres such as hip-hop, jùjú, fújì, afrobeat, àpàlà, pop, and gospel have largely displaced highlifein the memory of current generations of creatives and cultural enthusiasts. Besides, scholars of the genre, such as Ọmọ́jọlà and John Collins frequently stressits elitist roots, as music catered primarily to clients who could afford middle-class nightclubs, hotels, and other exclusive venues. The assault dates much earlier,and came from multiple fronts. The dispersal of talents in the wake of the civil war escalated, in theearly 1970s,to the rise of new sounds that unleashed artists like Joni Haastrup, Túnjí Òyélànà, the Lijadu Sisters, Ṣẹ́gun Bucknor…and Fẹlá Anikulapo-Kuti!
The late revival of the career of Fatai Rolling Dollar, spearheaded by KúnléTẹ́júoṣó’s Jazzhole Records, the monthly Highlife Party events organized by the Committee for Relevant Art, CORA, and the immense curatorial undertakings by Ẹ̀shọ́’s EvergreenMusic Company, have succeeded in giving highlife a new lease on life. Ghanaian and Nigerian classics of the genre are now permanently available. Motivated by what Ọmọ́jọlà has consistently characterized as “nostalgia,” those rescue-efforts are pricelessin retrospect, ensuring that that history is not forgotten. This way, a musician of Ọláìyá’s stature has become knowable,widely acknowledged as a master, among the last of a rare breed. His longevity,combined with his central role in the creation of highlife, kept him in public consciousness right up to his taking ill around 2016. His creative output remains outstanding and his skills are hardly subject to debate.
His musical tastes and comprehensive knowledge of the genre, however,are not so well-known. As a longtime bandleader, he would naturally know all relevant instruments and remain on top of the musical abilities of those who played in the core band, over the course of six decades.
In an interview with Ọmọ́jọlà in February 2003, Ọláìyá fielded questions about both his contemporaries and members of his band, offering incisive opinions about the unique gifts of each. This interview forms the core of an academic essay, “Politics, Identity and Nostalgia in Nigerian Music,” an important biographical sketch of Ọláìyá’s career. Bala Miller, who lived with him in the family house at Tinubu Square, was “very highly gifted musically, a very good arranger, composer, vocalist.” Of Rex Jim Lawson, an outstandingartist who died young at 35, he said: “He played in my band. He was on the trumpet; he was a wonderful trumpeter. When he left my band, he succeeded…The management of Central Hotel succeeded in wooing him out of my band. His sound was unique. “Iworimo, Iworimo”…was a wonderful number.”
He spoke about Fẹlá and Victor Uwaifo in a similar vein, then he added something definitive:
When [Fẹla] created a successful sound of his own—the Afrobeat highlife—it was then that everyone started loving and knowing him. This is the secret of success in music. You want to create a distinct sound from whatever you have been playing and hearing, which is distinctive and peculiar to you alone. And once it is accepted by the general public and music fans, that means you have made it.
“You have to play five beats in a bar,” he remarked further to Ọmọ́jọlà, “to successfully play the real Nigerian highlife, which is melodious.” He contrasted this compositional pattern to Ghanaian highlife, which he said, had three beats.
We learnt, too, that when he was away on tour, Miller and Uwaifo had a fight that precipitated Uwaifo’s departure from the band and, soon, his big break with “Joromi.”When he commented on the success of that classic single, Ọláìyáspoke with the affection of a proud mentor.
This was a compelling, informed and generously discriminating intelligence, of the kind to lead the critic to approach questions of Ọláìyá’s legacies from an opposite perspective: he had a long, productive career, and was canny enough to create, in Stadium Hotel, the institutional means by which his work might endure in a milieu where structuresare quick to crumble.
And just might.
As Ẹshọ́ told Àjàó, “When he [Ọláìyá] wanted to record all his music, age had caught up with him to the extent that he couldn’t remember some records which he had done….I had to take his boys to the studio to educate them because I was there when he did the first records. I knew them from a time when they used different studios and so it was hard to find the records.”
The recording entailed a rescue-mission, withẸ̀shọ́taking the musician’s All-Stars Band to several studio sessions to complete a virtual remastering of the old songs.Out of this effort came“The Footprints of a Victor: Evergreen Songs of Dr. Victor Ọláìyá, OON,”a CD-pack containingseventy-five songs, curated from fifteen different records. The elaborate,artisanalliner notes feature a picture of Ẹ̀shọ́ handing the CD-pack to the musician.
On the front cover are images of footprints on a sandy beach tapering into the distance, the populist touch of what was left of the middle-class for which Ọláìyá created his music. A few years later, Ọláìyá’s music would demonstrate its timeless appeal when music streaming service, Spinlet, and record company, Premier Records, partnered to remake some of his classics. This led to the release of “Baby Mi Dà (Baby Jọ̀wọ́)”, his 2013 collaboration with award-winning hip-hop artiste, Tuface Idibia. Aside featuring Idibia, the track’s official video was shot by renowned filmmaker, Kunle Afolayan, inside Stadium Hotel. A thing of lovefest, this remix of Ọláìyá’s “Mofẹ́ Muyàn” succeeded in reawakening interest in a classic genre and went viral instantly, as music videos do in the digital world, looking for companionship in unlikely places, to be shared, sampled, remixed or ripped. A hall of echoes, now beyond the confines of Stadium Hotel.
Akin Adeṣọkan is the author of Roots in the Sky, a novel, and Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics. Fóyèkẹ́ Àjàó’s research assistance and editorial suggestionswith this essayare gratefully acknowledged.