Monday, May 16, 2011

The Roots of Fela: Victor Olaiya, the Evil Genius of Highlife

In the last post I said that I thought Fela represented the ‘end of music’.  Tonight’s post goes back to the ‘beginning of music’ or at least Fela’s Afrobeat.

Victor Olaiya
Victor Olaiya, who turned 80 on the last day of 2010, is like many of the Pakistani artists spotlighted on the Washerman’s Dog, an underappreciated and semi-unknown titan of music.  Someone who had immense impact in his country (Nigeria) and region (West Africa) but whose musical children have gone on to reap the seeds that he sowed.

Born into a huge family (he has 23 brothers and sisters!) in the Cross River State of Nigeria, Victor Olaiya, learned to play several instruments including the French Horn while still at school. Coming to Lagos and doing well in school, in 1951 he received a scholarship from Howard University in Washington DC. Sadly, his family was unable to afford the costs of getting and maintaining him in America so he stayed on in Nigeria pursuing his love of music.  He performed as a trumpet player with a number of bands in Lagos before branching out on his own as a leader of the highlife band Cool Cats Orchestra in 1954.

Highlife is a distinctive genre of popular dance music that originated in English speaking West Africa in the early 20th century. It blends African musical principles with Western concepts of harmony and is inspired by American jazz, Caribbean calypso and the West African dance orchestra.

Vibrant exchanges and collaboration across the African diaspora took place among early black highlife artists. For example, the Ghanaian Kofi Ghanaba (Guy Warren) played with Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and Caribbean  musicians often played in West African highlife bands.  On the political front, Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of independent Ghana and a Pan Africanist, adopted highlife as the national music under his Africanisation policy. Highlife music reached its peak in the 1950s and 60s spreading beyond West Africa to others parts of the continent.

A typical highlife orchestra consists of African percussion instruments and Western wind and string instruments which give it its distinctive and cosmopolitan sound. The music retains a pronounced syncopated polyrhythm characteristic of African music.

High life bands were first introduced to colonial institutions such as schools, police and military forces. To Western ears African music was mumbo jumbo and the complicated rhythms signified primitiveness. Marching bands were introduced as means of bringing discipline to the natives and colonial institutions of power. To African years, Western music was all harmony but no rhythm and so highlife came about in an attempt to combine the two forms. Highlife is recognised for its brass and lively tunes and rhythms.

The bands were often hired out to entertain at ceremonies, especially funeral corteges.  Highlife became identified as the music of the new African, educated elites and the term, highlife, captures the aspiration of this class and stands in opposition to its perceived status in colonial Africa as ‘lowlife’.

Victor Olaiya and the Cool Cats were one of the biggest highlife bands in West Africa in the 50s and 60s. The other giant, and his main rival was E.T. Mensah from Ghana. In one interview Olaiya had this to say about Mensah.

“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.
Olaiya and Mensah

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 arrangement of the recording to me, while I conceded the harmony to him. The album sold very well.”

Some have said that Olaiya’s music was a critical bridge between highlife and what would become Afrobeat, so identified with Fela. Indeed, Fela Kuti and his drummer Tony Allen, both played in the Cool Cats and according to Olaiya, Fela learned how to play trumpet under his tutelage! 

In the 1970s (?) or early 1980s (?) Olaiya formed a new band the International Soul All Stars and often marketed himself as the Evil Genius of Highlife, a title given him by a Nigerian journalist for his unique and ‘otherworldly’ sound.

To complement the slices of Fela post yesterday, I offer two fantastic records by Victor Olaiya.  The first from the early-mid 1960s is as concise and Fela’s music is long.  Hardly cracking 3 minutes a piece, these four tracks are a delightful introduction to the Cool Cats version of highlife.

         Track Listing:
1.   Anyin Ga Na
2.   Bonsue
3.   'Cool Cats' Victory
4.   Trumpet Highlife
Listen here.

The second collection is from the 1980s when ‘The Evil Genius of Highlife’ was performing with his International Soul All Stars. This set is longer and more languid in some respects with a lovely laid back vocal on a couple of tracks that perfectly captures the feel of sitting under a palm tree drinking coconut beer.

         Track Listing:
1.   All Stars Invitation
2.   Iyawo Patako
3.   Iye Jemila (Kendy Adex)
4.   Laba Laba
5.   Mo Fe Mu'Yan
6.   Moonlight Highlife
7.   So Fun Mi

Listen here.


Olavo di Txada said...

thanks for sharing the info and music with us!

ajnabi said...

Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it.

Olavo di Txada said...

except.. password.. I cannot find it..