Victor Olaiya Nigeria’s Evil Genius Trumpeter Who Influenced Fela Kuti

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Victor Olaiya Nigeria’s Evil Genius Trumpeter Who Influenced Fela Kuti

Nigeria has been mourning music legend Victor Olaiya, who created Nigeria’s highlife rhythms and influenced a generation of musicians including Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Nduka Orjinmo looks back at the life of the trumpeter, who died last month at the age of 89.

Just like the well-turned out government filing clerk that he was, Olaiya always carried a pen in his breast pocket. This was not for noting instructions that had to be precisely followed, but rather because he needed to write down the musical notes and phrases as they came to him.

This was at the beginning of the 1950s, his early days as a performer, when the trumpeter was trying to create Nigeria’s highlife rhythms.

More musician than bureaucrat

At this stage, music was something he did in his spare time and Olaiya thought he had lost his job in the civil service when his boss saw a newspaper photo of him performing at a nightclub.

Instead, he was told that he was a better musician than a bureaucrat at the survey department of Lagos mainland local government.

He left the job and took on music full time.

Born to wealthy Yoruba parents in the southern city of Calabar, Olaiya had an early start in music.

His father was a church organist and his mother a folk singer from the western city of Oyo.

He was also influenced by Caribbean calypso and included the popular song Sly Mongoose in his repertoire that he recalled first hearing when he was nine years old.

As a teenager, though, he was taught Western classical music, and played the clarinet and French horn in his school orchestra in eastern Nigeria.

Years later, wielding his gold trumpet and dabbing his face with a white handkerchief, Olaiya would perform a new type of music in Nigeria that would go on to inspire a young Fela Anikulapo-Kuti among others.

After his secondary school, Olaiya moved to Lagos where he joined the Lagos City Orchestra and then the band of composer Sammy Akpabot, playing ballroom music for wealthy urban audiences.

But it was as the head of Bobby Benson’s Alfa Carnival Group that his talent would be properly nurtured.

Benson took a number of musicians under his wing and it was here that Olaiya polished the skills that would help him form his own band, the Cool Cats.

Listening to the recordings now, the gentle swinging rhythm and the prominence of the horn section, you sense a sepia tinge to Olaiya’s songs.

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They evoke memories of the fading British Empire and transition to independence, conjuring up images of afro hair combed into a dome, of middle-class Nigerians appearing overdressed in tuxedos and gowns with a cigarette neatly tucked between the fingers.

By the late 1950s, the colonial administrators were on their way out and a young generation of educated Africans was about to take over.

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As the disco bars and ballrooms gradually thinned out of the British and their music, in stepped the elite class of Africans seeking that same high life but fused with their own culture.

And the bands responded to satisfy their new patrons, incorporating local rhythms and melodies into their repertoire.

Victor Olaiya Nigeria’s Evil Genius Trumpeter Who Influenced Fela Kuti

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