Dr. Victor Abimbola Olaiya and The Evil Genius of Highlife Vol. 2
by Chad Bauer
On a beach, somewhere in some paradise a tingling guitar riffs, trumpets ring, and a clave clacks like a heartbeat. On a beach, somewhere in some paradise, you hear a language you’ve never heard before. A voice rises above the band. The horns stop to join in on vocal harmonies. The words are sung in an indecipherable language. At the end of every line, the words seem to sink below the rest. The rhythm of the song swings sweetly. Your feet are warm in the sand. The song ends.
On a beach, somewhere in some paradise, the band begins again. It seems to fill out the coastline with a sort of serenity, bliss, peace even. “Africa,” the singer sings, “Africa is funny / Africa is dying / Africa in trouble.” The language shifts to English. Messages of revolution, dignity, and pride reveal the struggles of those around you. On a beach, somewhere in some paradise, you realize this paradise you’ve envisioned only remains intact when the reality is obscured by misinterpretation.
The creation of a sound--its style, rhythm, lyrical content, the available instruments--depends on the attitudes precipitating at that time and in that culture. In 1861, Britain annexed Lagos. In 1914, Britain colonized the Northern and Southern territories of Nigeria. In 1932, Victor Olaiya was born.
Somewhere along this timeline beyond the Northern border of Nigeria, the native people of Ghana adopted a peculiar use for Western instruments. The electric guitar, trumpet, and saxophone were combined with the clave--a percussion instrument indigenous to Ghana and Nigeria. This mixture helped create a culturally ambiguous sound. These principal instruments would later be marketed as highlife. Performances would either be held in traditional settings like festivals and rituals or in the Western milieu of churches, bars, and nightclubs.
Highlife contains elements of South American rhythmic patterns (i.e. the clave), European instruments and a dominant fixed melody as per European tastes, North American concepts of jazz and the blues in highlife’s textured horns and lyrical voice, and Latin American arpeggiated guitar riffs.
The clave acts as the foundation, the heartbeat of highlife. The 3-2 rhythm shows little variation across the genre’s catalog. It is as much a testament to a shared experience and knowledge of cultural and natural heritage as it is a comfortable and diverse basis for musical experimentation.
The foremost musicians attributed to the success of highlife are Ghana’s E.T. Mensah, “The King of Highlife,” and Nigeria’s Olaiya, “The Evil Genius of Highlife.” Afrobeat founders Fela Kuti and Tony Allen found themselves in various projects of these highlife musicians. While a part of Olaiya’s band, Kuti was a vocalist and learned the trumpet. Kuti would later leave Nigeria, moving to the US for a brief time, and synthesize highlife and funk into Afrobeat.
The Evil Genius was released at some time in the early 2000s and compiled Olaiya’s work throughout the ’80s. Over time, the popularity of Afrobeat in Nigeria and abroad seems to have influenced much of Olaiya’s work during this period. What was once perfected for live performance was forced to conform to the growing popularity of the record industry. Wider instrumentation picks up the slack of recording technology’s inability to capture the trumpet’s lower registers. The band seems heavier. Drums and other percussion instruments were added to the mixture to create a fuller sound.
Where The Evil Genius begins to wane is in the poor digitization of the record. At times, and this goes for much of the available highlife music available on streaming services, the music regresses toward a low-quality sound. “Oruku Tindi Tindi” rings and crunches for much of the song. Among Olaiya’s discography, this album seems to hold up the best, yet it reverts every so often.
The language spoken in Olaiya’s music is either Yoruba or English. This is true for Mensah as well. Although I wasn’t able to retrieve the lyrics for much of highlife’s music, the few songs I was able to get a hold of and translate tend to remain between nostalgic and tender themes. There seems to be a desire for tradition, a return to the old times before colonization. Although the Yoruba lyrics on The Evil Genius remain a mystery to me, there is a sense that these songs are just as political as those in sung in English. Olaiya idealizes the past to challenge Nigeria’s alien present. The message seems to be that culture must not be forgotten.
Among those sung in English, there’s a strong political voice. “Africa” speaks to the continent’s fate, the opportunities for a healthy future, and the countries that have fought against colonial imposition. The tendency toward a political voice sung or spoken in English can be seen in highlife and, later, Afrobeat. Their collective messages are meant to provoke those in neighboring countries toward political stability and extend beyond Africa by finding common ground in the language of their oppressors.