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Described by Alhaji Alade Odunewu of the Daily Times as “The Evil Genius of Highlife,” Victor Olaiya is considered to be one of the best trumpet players in Nigeria. His career started out playing a variety of music including waltz and highlife. In 1952, Victor Olaiya decided to form his own band which became known as the Cool Cats. His popularity grew throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He became a night club owner in the ’70s and continued with his music. He went on to become extremely famous in Nigeria during the 1950s and early 1960s, but however, he received little recognition beyond the shores of Nigeria.

Early life and career

Olaiya was born on 31 December 1930, in Calabar, Cross River State, as the 20th child of a family of 24. His parents, Alfred Omolona Olaiya and Bathsheba Owolabi Motajo, came from Ijesha-Ishu in Ekiti State. Olaiya came from a very rich family. His father’s house called Ilọijọs Bar stood on 2 Bamgbose Street, Lagos Island until it was demolished on 11 September 2016. At an early age, he learned to play the Bombardon and the French Horn. After leaving school he moved to Lagos, where he passed the school certificate examination in 1951 and was accepted by Howard University, US, to study civil engineering. Olaiya instead pursued a career as a musician, much to the chagrin and the disapproval of his parents. He played with the Sammy Akpabot Band, was leader and trumpeter for the Old Lagos City Orchestra and joined the Bobby Benson Jam Session Orchestra.

Victor Olaiya and the Band of Cool Cats

In 1954, Olaiya formed his own band, the Cool Cats, playing popular highlife music. His band was chosen to play at the state ball when Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom visited Nigeria in 1956, and later to play at the state balls when Nigeria became independent in 1960 and when Nigeria became a republic in 1963. On the latter occasion, Olaiya shared the stage with the American jazz musician Louis Armstrong. During the Nigeria-Biafran War of 1967–70, Olaiya was given the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel (honorary) in the Nigerian army and his band played for the troops at various locations. The Cool Cats later travelled to the Congo to perform for United Nations troops. Olaiya however, renamed his band to the All-Stars Band when they played the 1963 International Jazz Festival in Czechoslovakia.

Victor Olaiya and a Blend Sound

Olaiya’s music bridges between Ghanaian highlife and what would become Afrobeat. His musical style was influenced by James Brown, with horn parts harmonised in Brown’s style, as opposed to the mostly unison lines of Afrobeat. The music includes the swinging percussion of Tony Allen, but not the syncopated style that Allen later pioneered.

Other Notable facts about Victor Olaiya

  • Olaiya released an album with Ghanaian highlife musician E. T. Mensah. Both the drummer Tony Allen and vocalist Fela Kuti played with Olaiya and went on to achieve individual success.
  • Olaiya also ran a business that imported and distributed musical instruments and accessories throughout West Africa and established the Stadium Hotel in Surulere.
  • In 1990, Olaiya received a fellowship of the Institute of Administrative Management of Nigeria. For a period, he was also president of the Nigerian Union of Musicians.
  • In July 2013, Victor Olaiya released a music video remix of Baby Jowo (Baby Mi Da) with 2face Idibia and was received with much acclaim.



All Music

Featured Image Source: City People Magazine

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This article was first published on 3rd September 2019


Jeremiah is a scholar and a poet. He has a keen eye for studying the world and is passionate about people. He tweets at @jeremiahaluwong.

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