When the news first broke a few months back, that Uncle Jimi Solanke was going to clock 80, it came as a pleasant surprise. This is because this Theatre Icon has been around forever, from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s till the present time. And over the years, many have lost count of the age of this Living Legend who is still waxing strong.
In recognition of his remarkable feat in the theatre world, City People decided to track this slender folklore veteran to his home town in Ipara-Remo in Ogun State, where he relocated about 4 years ago to start a new life and create his dream idea of setting up a theatre resort. That is what he has been working on since 2019. He has built for himself a lovely Bungalow where he lives and plans to turn the whole spacious compound into something like a Theatre Village. He calls it Ibudo Asa, which is a centre for creative and performing arts enhancement.
So, on Monday 4th July 2022, he will be dedicating the centre. It is planned to be a day of Praises, Prayers, Communion, and Thanksgiving Concert. As he puts it on his birthday, he will be celebrating the grace of God in his life.
When the City People team made up of Publisher, SEYE KEHINDE, Head of City People TV, SUNDAY ADIGUN and Photo Journalist, SANNI ABDULRASHEED got to his country home, they were shocked to find this slim-built actor in Jeans and a shirt, looking as simple as ever.
Though age has mellowed him a bit, the Great Jimi Solanke is still his bubbly and agile self. We met him sitting outside, with his wife of over 40 years, in his sprawling compound, built over a whole acre of land.
We found a man who is happy and at peace with himself. He was nursing his bottle of Gulder beer, which he said is good for his nutrition, as a beverage. We found a man who is ageing gracefully and someone who still has the fire of creative arts burning inside him. Has he retired?, we asked him. No. I can’t retire. People like us don’t retire. I am a folklore artiste. I love telling stories. I have a lot of interest in folksongs and folktales, in music and the arts generally.” Truly so.
He has had a beautiful career as a master storyteller. Adorning the white wall of his living room, which also doubles as his office and study, are paintings and sculptures. Of course, the entire place is littered with magazines, brochures of events and personalities and bookshelves stocked with books on Creative Arts.
To celebrate his 80th, 2 books will be coming out soon. One is a Photobook. The 2nd is a Biography with the title: The Indestructible, a name given to him by Prof. Wole Soyinka (W.S).
Jimi Solanke is a man of many parts.
He is a Children’s storyteller, an acclaimed actor, Teacher, Poet and folklore singer. Born in July 1942, the versatile artist with a warm personality also veered into such business as owning a club and quite often, when the situation allows, his talent as a Composer, Musician and Spokesman has been demonstrated. Jimi Solanke is known to many who watched television as a child in the late 60s in Nigeria, even up to the late 1990s. Solanke’s career as a musician is quite eventful. He started out in the early days, composing and performing various songs with Roy Chicago and Chris Ajilo. He is credited with experimenting with various genres and themes. He recorded the first Yoruba ‘twist’ song, singing with IDEK, an Afro-rock outfit.
While living in the United States, he made prominent contributions to the recording of a Cuban Santeria album and full-on rock songs. He has written and composed songs for such internationally acclaimed artists as Eddy Grant, with heartwarming tracks like “Ife Ti Mo Ti Tan” And “Wipe Monfe E” and appeared on Ralph MacDonald’s 1976 widely celebrated album ‘The Path’. He was at the re-opening of the Apollo in Harlem in 1979 where he performed a full rendition of ‘The Path’ with Mac Donald and a team of other musicians.
He has also made his mark on both TV and Radio.
Storyland, Solanke’s very popular television programme made him a favourite of many children in Nigeria. It made him a deeply accepted Television Personality, as Storyland was one of the first programmes conceptualised especially for children. Such stories that cover the travails of the tortoise and various other animals, with a root found in African folklore, have been an inspiring source of entertainment for children through this artist. Solanke committed several years of his life to teach drama at the University of Ibadan and the University of Benin. By 1963, alongside Tunji Oyelana. Yomi Obileye, Yewande Akibo and James Iroha he responded to the inauguration of a School of Drama. He lived at the University of Ibadan as one of the first generation of students to remain as a Teacher until 1969.
He joined the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) and became a popular voice on the radio programme, Hello Fans. He was the anonymous accomplice during the famous radio hold-up saga orchestrated by Wole Soyinka at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, NBC, studios at Ibadan in 1965.
He graduated from the University of Ibadan, where he obtained a Diploma Certificate in Drama.
After graduation, he moved to the United States, where he created a drama group called The Africa Review, focusing on African culture. Members of this group usually put on African clothing, specifically Yoruba costumes. They performed in black African schools. Solanke established himself in Los Angeles, California, where his storytelling career began. He was described as a “master storyteller” by CNN.
In 1986, he returned to Nigeria with three members of the African Review group to work with the Nigerian Television Authority. His reputation earned him the lead role in most of Ola Balogun’s films. He was part of the team that made the film Kongi’s Harvest by Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka. And he has been very active ever since. He is not slowing down yet, as he plans to still do a lot more at his Ibudo Asa in Ipara Remo.
Below are excerpts of the 2-hour interview.
When did you decide to relocate back to Ipara finally?
I started coming back to my source in 2019 when I discovered that I have not done what my father said I should do. He said “do something here” and for a long time, I have not been able to do it. I gave this land to a cousin and he used it for farming for nearly 20 years. So in 2019, I started listening to myself, I started hearing my father’s voice “do something here”. So, I just came here. At first, I had no place to lodge and I started sleeping in all these small hotels. Making a home was pre-eminent on my mind, so I started doing all I could. Nearly 2 years ago, when the roof was put and the doors were put in, I made up my mind to be the site Engr. myself. I decided to be sleeping here, where nothing was done.
No ceiling, nothing, I started sleeping here, and I started feeling good, later, we started doing the ceiling, doing the flooring and now I am a proper Ipara boy. So I have been living here now for nearly 2 years.
And how has it been?
Wonderful! Can’t you feel how I feel? Clean air, everything is just fine. It has been nice. I am now a member of my hometown age group, a total folks man. (Laughs).
How has that also helped your art?
I used to live in Ile-Ife before I take off from there to Lagos or anywhere I used to think twice because of the stress, but from here, you can get to anywhere, be it Lagos, Ogun, Osun State in the twinkle of an eye, and that makes me easily accessible to programmes in Lagos and other places. This place is like a central location for me and I am enjoying it.
So, what are you doing now?
I am doing what I know how to do best. You don’t retire in my profession until your God-given day and time. I still have my band. I am still performing, and that is the most important thing. And I am always ready to continue performing. If I don’t perform, what else will I be doing? Oh yes! When I don’t perform, I do some artwork, I do some farming now.
This is a place where your creativity can be boosted because you don’t have any distractions. I will be releasing an album very soon. So, there are a lot of things I still can do.
What is your plan towards your forthcoming 80th birthday celebration?
Prayers, praises, communion and thanksgiving. Many groups in Lagos are planning to organise different programmes for me in Lagos, including concerts. We just want to thank God.
Do you feel fulfilled?
Of course, I am fulfilled. When you are talking about fulfilment in life, mention Jimi Solanke that is why I am afraid of God for what he has given me to do and the opportunity and the talent that he has given me to have. When I look back as an actor, I have earned a lot of kudos for having done good jobs, both here and abroad. My name is still on different kinds of marbles all over the world. Just 2 weeks ago, a boy Najite in Los Angeles stood in front of a big audience and said “I am standing in front of you because I studied what I am going to be doing here under one great man, Jimi Solanke and he did very well and I am very happy, just a few weeks ago.
It could happen to any lecturer in different kinds of fields, it could happen to scientists, and it is happening to me, that is part of what we have come to this world to do, fulfilment, in front of about thousands of people and somebody standing, who they all went there to see saying he is standing there today because of Jimi Solanke. It is not when you steal Nigeria’s money and you keep it in different homes where they are all becoming ordinary paper; that is not fulfilment. It is not about money, we don’t have to shout, look at my boss, Wole Soyinka, he is not living this life because of money. The same thing with me, I had somebody who mentored me. Somebody who I want to be like. In this whole area, there is nobody with this large mass of land.
What else do you want to have and not be fulfilled with? I have the best phones in the world in my house here, that people gave me.
I am one of the most fulfilled people in this world. What are we even talking about, I am 80 and I am still talking, I can still walk and do everything I want. What kind of fulfilment am I still looking for? I am so fulfilled.
How did you build Jimi Solanke as a brand?
It’s hardwork, devotion, dedication, total mindset on being. With hard time talking as if it’s fun time. With lots of stringent measures, accepted as if it’s part of life. As an actor, I always take my script and study to the best, that is why you don’t see me on anyhow set. Because I know acting is not a child’s play. I never knew I was going to be an actor. I started acting in elementary school. I was winning more laurels and prizes, and even when I was in secondary school, that is where I knew I have a talent, I have been writing songs since I was in the secondary school, to the point that some of my songs were even recorded when I was still in the secondary school. Even while I was still in secondary school, my name had already been announced on the radio as a writer. My parents didn’t want me to follow up on performing artistry.
Because they thought any child that does that is useless. Then I disagreed with my father, maybe because I knew that is what God sent me to do on earth and maybe that is why I am still living.
Let me take you back a bit sir, where were you born?
I was born in Lagos, I grew up in Lagos. But most of my holidays in those days were spent in this town, that is part of my cultural link with this town.
How did the theatre come in combined with music?
At a point, I was in Ibadan, while I was in Ibadan, I was staying in Iyaganku, in my Uncle’s house, and they put me to be an apprentice Engineer at Caston Press, but I had the advantage of being close to Okebola, where my late friend, Orlando Julius was playing. We became friends. I started writing songs, I started singing for his band to the point that I couldn’t even go to work, so the white men who brought Caston Press decided not to have me in their office because I would come in the morning, I will be sleeping and tired.
So my Uncle, M.S. Sowole who got the position for me as the Assistant Engineer sent me out of his house and I ended up a full-time musician in Ibadan. That’s where I got my freedom and I used it to the fullest, that is where I met the Mbari Ibadan, where Wole Soyinka, Chris Okigbo, Ralph Opara, and Yemi Lijadu were doing drama in Ogunpa, Oyo, Ibadan, that is where I joined drama and very soon after, I joined them, the opportunity to be in the school of drama came up. I went for the test and we were all admitted, for the 1st study in drama in Africa at the Institute of African Study, University of Ibadan. That was how I fell in love with drama and I am still enjoying it.
Let’s talk about your voice sir, is it in-born or have you had to train your voice to be what it is today?
Even if you have any aspect of you that is good, talent or gift, if you do not use it and polish it, it will not be worth it because, in the school of drama, we were taught how to talk, and how to use our voice. And once you are used to such exercises, your body would take it, accept it, imbibe it and make it part of you. The body is a machine that could be trained, that could be worked upon, that could be boosted, even to the hardest point.
At some point, you brought in folk tales and all, how did that evolve?
Basically, I am a folk artist, that is why I like Jazz. I studied a lot of folks’ songs. I studied a lot of folk tales. I was told lots of stories when I come for holiday in Ipara as a child. Between my friends and I, I love telling stories. When I got to America, I discovered that these people would love to listen to stories, they would never want you to stop, so, I started my company, “The African Review” for storytelling, dramatisation and folks singing in different schools in America. When I came back, I discovered that we also need this storytelling here, that is how I got into it. I requested for a programme to be done for children of the members of staff club UNILAG, so we did it, LTV 8, all of them were there. They recorded enough and edited it into 2 episodes.
They called us that they like the story, and they have 2 episodes already and they will be ready to do more episodes with us if we agree. We agreed and we gave it the name “Family Scene”. We did that for a long time. After then, Galaxy came to me and we started with them. NTA came and invited me to their children’s programme and workshop in Jos and we created “StoryLand” and it went on for a long time in NTA. Later, when I was in Ife, AIT came and we started doing African stories for AIT. I love telling stories and I love children.
What sort of person is Jimi Solanke?
Ordinary person, not asking too much from life, even from the point of eating. I am very very contented. That is the number 1 secret about me, I am contented. It is when you begin to look for what you don’t have, in a manner that you don’t have to, that is when you have a problem. When I close my eyes, I sleep peacefully, when I wake up, I wake up to a new life of hope, full of aspiration. At the end of the day, we still have cause to say thank God.