Characterized by horns and multiple guitars, Highlife started as a genre of music in Ghana sometime in early part of the 20th Century. However, Nigeria, possibly because of its proximity to Ghana caught the fever of this form of music such that some of its Nigerian exponents would pass as the most notable globally. In this story, AKINSETAN AKINRELE recalls some of Nigeria’s highlife greats in the 20th century.

AMBROSE CAMPBELL: Born Oladipupo Adekoya Campbell known with the showbiz moniker, Ambrose Campbell, was a Nigerian musician and bandleader who was born on August 19, 1919 and died on June 22, 2006. He was reputed to have formed Britain’s First Ever Black band, the West African Rhythm Brothers, in the 1940s, and was also acknowledged by Fela Kuti as “the father of modern Nigerian music.” He first got public attention after his band’s performance at the VE Day celebrations in Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, London in 1945.

The super percussionist and guitarist played highlife, jùjú music, jazz and rock.  As a preacher’s son, he sang in the church choir. He started performing palm-wine music against the wishes of his family who kicked him out of the house when they discovered what he was doing. For a while he lived under the protection of nationalist, Herbert Macaulay and worked as a printer, as well as a musician.

He met guitarist Brewster Hughes in Lagos and performed with him in the Jolly Boys Orchestra. Soon after the start of World War II, Campbell joined the crew of an Elder Dempster cargo ship sailing to Britain. On its second voyage the ship was attacked by U-boats in the Atlantic, and Campbell jumped ship in Liverpool, soon moving to London where he met other members of the small Nigerian community, including Brewster Hughes who had also moved to the city. Campbell formed a band, but soon afterwards, he was attacked by racist thugs at a London underground station; Hughes was later imprisoned for shooting one of the assailants but upon his release, the duo formed a band known as the West African Rhythm Brothers. They were said to have played music for theatre performances by the black ballet company, Les Ballets Nègres,  in a tour of the United Kingdom in addition to appearing on Television.

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REX LAWSON: In the mid-60s when highlife genre of music has become the fad across Ghana and permeated the Nigerian social circle, young Nigerians at the time embraced it with ingenious fusion of local vibes. Among the multi-talented proponents of this music and perhaps one of the greatest Nigeria ever produced at the time was Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson.

Born in 1935, Lawson had a very dramatic childhood. Fourth born but first of his parents’ children to survive, Lawson was said to have been struck by a bout of small pox as a child. Given the experience they had with their three previous children, his father left his care to him mother, showing no interest in raising him. But he survived and would later drag his father to court a reason for which he got cursed and became estranged to his father until he started his music career.

He was in his 20s when he became a superstar in Nigeria. A rare emotional and philosophical singer whose mastery in conveying deep meanings through the trumpet, the alto saxophone and his velvet voice. Rex Lawson’s void is yet to be filled five decades after the 1971 car accident that claimed his life on his way to Warri.

He stood shoulder above others with his mesmeric rendition of songs in Efik, Kalabari, Izon, Igbo, several Ghanaian dialects and Pidgin English. His versatility explains why he could release songs in quick session, became party favourites and was on constant rotation in Radio Lagos back in those days.

Abundantly talented, Rex Lawson refused to further his education beyond primary school but would rather spend time honing his trumpeting skills in the choir. When he was sure he could play well enough, he moved to Port Harcourt and subsequently found a place among the band boys of the popular Lord Eddyson, the leader and owner of Starlight Melody Orchestra. Rex would later move to Lagos, which was the heart of Nigeria’s entertainment hub.

He was said to have resided in Yaba and played with professional heavyweights such as Sammy Obot, Bobby Benson, Chris Ajilo, and Victor Olaiya. He was a regular performer at the Independent Hotel in Ibadan, usually on the invitation of Orlando Julius. His frequent use of the alto saxophone for solos in his songs was considered one of his major contribution to his genre of music which hitherto relied heavily on the trumpet. His most popular songs include Abari Biya, Bere Bote and Owuna Derina.

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ROY CHICAGO: John Akintola Ademuwagun otherwise known as Roy Chicago combined the trumpet and saxophone with a spectacular vocal ability to stand out in his time.

Chicago performed ball room dance and highlife, fox trot, tango, waltz, quick step, jive and Latin American music. He was an indigene of Ikare-Akoko in Ondo state, and played with Bobby Benson in the 1950s.

His music career started at the Central Hotel, Ibadan in the 1950s before he later moved to Lagos and became increasingly successful in the years immediately after Nigeria’s independence in 1960. The talking drum was the main innovation he brought into his mode of highlife music, which was heavy on Nigerian indigenous themes.

His sidemen included tenor sax player Etim Udo and trumpeter Marco Bazz. Roy Chicago’s highlife style had its accent anchored on rhythm. He explained Nigerian folksongs with vocals by Tunde Osofisan, one of the finest singers on the highlife scene. Jimi Solanke, the playwright, poet and folk singer was also part of its band at some point.  Although his style could not be called a jazz derivative, there are blue notes in his saxophone parts and “cool” jazz intonations and phrases, which are closer to traditional Yoruba music than to highlife. Some of his most notable songs are: Iyawo Pankeke, Are owo niesa Yoyo gbe and Keregbe Emu.  He died on 5th February, 1989.

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VICTOR OLAIYA: Victor Abimbola Olaiya was born on December 31, 1930 in Calabar, Cross River State. He is a Nigerian trumpeter who plays in the highlife style. Though extremely famous in Nigeria during the 1950s and early 1960s, Olaiya received little recognition outside Nigeria. Alhaji Alade Odunewu of the Daily Times described him as “The Evil Genius of Highlife.”

He’s the 20th child of a family of 24. His parents, Alfred Omolona Olaiya and Bathsheba Owolabi Motajo, are 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 11th September, 2016.

At an early age, he learned to play the bombardon and the French horn.  He passed the school certificate examination in 1951 and was accepted by Howard University, USA, to study Civil Engineering. Olaiya instead pursued a career as a musician, to 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.

In 1954, Olaiya formed his own band, The Cool Cats. The band played 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 celebrating Nigeria’s attainment of independence and republic status in 1960 and 1963 respectively. On the latter occasion, Olaiya shared the stage with the American jazz musician Louis Armstrong.

During the Nigerian Civil 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 renamed his band to the All Stars Band when they played the 1963 International Jazz Festival in Czechoslovakia. He also ran a business that imported and distributed musical instruments and accessories throughout West Africa.

His 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.

He 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.

In July 2013, Victor Olaiya released a music video remix of Baby Jowo (Baby Mi Da) with 2face Idibia. It was received with much acclaim.

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ORLANDO OWOHBorn Stephen Oladipupo Owomoyela in Osogbo on 14th February 1932, Orlando Owoh was a highlife musician and band leader. His Father hailed from Ifon while his mother was from Owo both in Ondo State and he later became known to his fans as Chief Dr. Orlando Owoh.

As a young man Owoh initially got into the carpentry trade until 1958 when he was hired by Nigeria’s Kola Ogunmola Theatre Group to play drums and sing.

Owoh went on to form Dr. Orlando Owoh and his Omimah Band in 1960. His career as a musician spanned over forty years, and he became one of the leading proponents of highlife music. He has about 45 albums to his credit.

With bands such as the Omimah Band and later the Young Kenneries and the African Kenneries International, Owoh remained popular in Nigeria, even as tastes moved to the newer jùjú and fuji styles.

The unique steel in Owoh’s voice, his fearless ability to speak truth to power, which brought him in conflict with the law on a number of occasions, stood him out. He had a few brushes with the law for his alleged use of marijuana which sent him to the Alagbon Prisons in Ikoyi for a term.

Albums released by Dr. Orlando Owoh include: Aiye nyi lo (medley), Ajanaku Daraba, Apartheid, Asotito Aye, Awa de, Ayo mi sese bere, Cain ati Abel, Easter special, E ku iroju, Emi wa wa lowo re, Experience, Ganja I, Ganja II, Ibaje eniyan amongst others. Orlando Owoh died on November 4, 2008 and was laid to rest at his Agege residence in Lagos, Nigeria.