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  • Desola Olaleye

Notes on My Grandfather: The Warmth of Music

My grandfather, SBO, with some of his grandchildren on Eloseh Street, Surulere, Lagos

The first human death I observed was my paternal grandfather's. Prior to his death in 2018, he suffered from an illness that I suspect began in the mid 2000s. People who knew our family would call my mother to say they found my grandfather lingering in a part of town and it wasn't clear how he got there. He became increasingly forgetful and disoriented but many assumed he was simply experiencing the inevitable sting of old age. When an aging person acts out of character, little energy is expended on understanding why. Some were kind enough to accompany him to our home in Surulere, Lagos. These acts of kindness accumulated as he grew older, but perhaps the most benevolent intervention was the medical diagnosis we received following his relocation to the UK. Dementia was identified as the culprit and while it wasn’t pleasant, this revelation pushed our family to reflect on how best to care for him. My parents became his primary carers, with my siblings and I offering support when out of school. In the immediate years before his death, the dementia advanced, leaving him in a foetal position for at least 12 hours a day. He was often irritable, harbouring feelings of anxiety. But one sound that would momentarily relieve his tension was Victor Olaiya's music.

Beside the enticing sound of trumpets in the background, Olaiya's gentle delivery of ribald statements and social commentary quickly became my favourite thing to listen to. Just as Olaiya offered my grandfather a temporary escape from agony, being in the company of my grandfather and Olaiya created a wall, albeit a fragile one, between me and my teenage angst. It provided a space into which I could escape. A space to explore what came before me. At a time I struggled to develop what I described as an authentic Nigerian identity, Olaiya's music gave me tools to search through my cultural history.

My grandfather, SBO (far right), with his parents and siblings in Otan Ayegbaju, December 1961

After my grandfather’s death, my interest in Olaiya burgeoned. I was excited to learn that Olaiya and I shared the name ‘Abimbola’ which means, 'I was born with wealth'. Like most Nigerian children decorated with numerous names at birth, I never felt I could connect with Abimbola as my third name. Yet discovering that Olaiya had also been named in a similar manner motivated me to treat the name with a heightened seriousness.

As a young adult I listened more closely to Olaiya’s songs, asking my parents questions about Yoruba phrases I didn’t understand. I disturbed them with requests for stories about the origins of my grandfather’s deep love of Olaiya’s music. Having discovered that, in the 1960s, my grandfather frequently visited the Stadium Hotel in Surulere to watch Olaiya perform, I became unable to disconnect Olaiya from SBO, both of whom died at age 89.

My grandfather brought a unique warmth into my life that reignites every time I hear Olaiya sing. It is a warmth that suspends, in the moment, thoughts of inadequacy and longing.

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