BY CHUKS NWANNE
LATER this evening, the enigmatic playwright, actor and folk music artiste, Jimi Solanke, will go live on stage in a concert at the EniObanke Arts Centre, GRA, Ikeja, Lagos. The gig, which will also feature other notable artiste is organised to mark Solanke’s 70th birthday anniversary. For sure, with his baritone voice and traditional gaits, Solanke would surely sing out his heart today, to thank God for seeing him through the years.
“I’m so much afraid of God now; when I look at all the challenges I’ve overcome in my life, I know that God truly loves me,” he said in a telephone chat.
For many, attaining 70 calls for a big celebration, but to Solanke, it is a time for deep reflection.
“Just recently, I listened to a work we did in 2004 for BBC and I discovered that most of the people I worked with on that production are today, dead. You talk about people like the palm wine guitarist, Alaba Pedro, saxophonist Maliki Showman … and I called my wife immediately and said to her, ‘let us pray.’ It is not by my powers that I’m still alive; it’s been a very long journey,” he said.
“Nothing actually changed; I still do a lot of things I used to do. Maybe because I’m used to using all my body in performance, I don’t feel anything. I still sit down with the younger generation and I still remember time and dates. However, within me, I know that old age has set in,” he said in that husky voice.
Having live for 70 years on earth, the veteran artiste has learnt a lot about life, which he now shares with the youths.
“Life has taught me to be hardworking, to be Godly and to be trusting. In the last 40 years of our marriage, we’ve not had any quarrel because we’ve learnt to trust.”
To the energetic performer, contentment should be the watchword for every youngman.
“You must be contented with whatever you have,” he charged. “The truth is that contentment forms the basis of life; once you are contented, other things will come.”
If given the opportunity to relive his life, the Ipara Remo-born artiste, said, “I will like to come back in form of Jimi Solanke. I have no single regret about my life because I see the hand of God in it.”
However, if there’s any regret in Solanke’s life, it has to do with starting his career late.
“I have a feeling that I started performing late; I would have loved it if I had started out much earlier than I did.”
THOUGH naturally talented, Solanke wormed himself to the hearts of many through his various children programmes, especially Storyland, which used to be very prominent on government and private television stations in Nigeria. A lonely child, many had tipped young Jimi to become an engineer, but he ended up a great performer.
“I am sure it is destiny because as a child, I was technically oriented and so my intention was to become an engineer. Then, I used to repair, dismantle and assemble objects. I used to do movies using candles and have other children watch while I played the role of a narrator. I never knew, I could end up a performing artiste.”
Along the line, Solanke’s uncle, who owned a casting company then, appointed him assistant technical officer, as a way of helping him develop what was believed to be his calling. Just as it looked like the coast was clear, the arts came calling.
“Whenever I got home then and I saw my hands soiled in oil and gum, I would just shake my head and put off. Meanwhile, I was getting more popular with a variety show on the radio then and the personage that was accompanying it was also soothing. At that point, I would do anything to avoid going to one paper printing press that would merely soil my hands. It wasn’t long before I started dodging work.”
With his tricks, young Jimi got reported to his uncle, who insisted he must conform to his wishes or leave his home.
“Of course, I left and ended up in my friends’ house. There and then, my vision for theatre arts became clearer and the liberty his (uncle’s) order provided linked me up with the likes of Tunji Oyelana, Yomi Obileye, Yewande Akinbo and other top artistes. Within the shortest period of time, I started singing and getting recorded by Roy Chicago, Rex Williams, having credit as a songwriter. I later got involved in drama,” he recalled.
As a performing artiste, Solanke pays more attention to children, who were part of his programmes on TV.
“I got drawn to them, especially when I travelled to America. The Europeans, by their own standard, put a lot of beneficial inputs into their kiddies programmes unlike what we have in Nigeria. It was with this notion that I took off with Storyland and others. The intention was to replay any part of this nation with the deep knowledge of that part. We tried to make it culturally, educationally and morally rich.”
His driving force on focusing on the Kids, he clearly stated this way: “I believe the future of any nation is in the hands of her youths and if these youths are not well managed when they were kids, that particular nation may be living a bleak future for.”
To Solanke, the popularity of the show is not unconnected with the story telling approach and the ability to draw graphical illustration to accompany the story.
“We had recorded two episodes in Jos, at the Plateau Radio Television (PRTV), and when we all came back to watch the two episodes, everyone had agreed that the programme was good and was already on air. It was when those people got back to Lagos that they spoke about it and they had to call me back to come and start the programmes there. I enjoyed doing it because children everywhere appreciated my cultural interactions in their life.”
Though not a rosy experience, the passion for the arts kept Solanke going all these years.
“Then, I would leave Ife to Lagos and in two to three days we had not recorded two episodes. It was time, mental and energy consuming, but I managed to survive. You have to keep on reading and thinking, not just the ordinary way, but in the most outstanding and creative way. This, as you would agree with me, does not come very cheap.”
Meeting Mrs. Solanke
I met her when I came back from America. As soon as I returned, I started having shows here and there. My first show was a children’s show at the University of Lagos and Lagos Television Station (LTV 8). People came and it was that show that we transported into Family Face until NTA asked me to come and do a workshop, which actually made me popular.
Before then, I was still working at the department of dramatic arts when suddenly, I ran into her. Somehow, I was very angry at talking or having an affair with her, but she was different. I had a lot of them coming to visit me in my house, but the first day she got there, she showed her uniqueness, all the leftover plates that other girls used, she washed without showing any hard feeling. I was surprised that a young lady like her could do all that; she didn’t even eat out of what she cooked. She cleaned the whole living room and the entire house.
When she was coming the second time, she insisted on stocking the house with necessary foodstuff and the like. As far as she believed, we were wasting all our money on irrelevant things. She was not only furious about her findings in my kitchen; she was disappointed. She only found cartons of beer, empty crates of soft drinks and containers. There was nothing inside.
The Saturday after, she forced me to the market, bought some foodstuff and cooked soup and food for us to eat. She doesn’t eat outside, that was her reason; and so, we went to the market and before I could mention Jack Robinson, we had bought stove, gas cooker and even fridge, which only cost about N13,000 in those days. I am talking about 1983. From then on, my house took a new shape, it became a place where I could come back to eat, have clean and already boiled water to drink; my life generally took a better turn. I thought this was getting serious and was actually helpless; that was how I got trapped. It was like caging a lion; she was so special. Even when other girls were inviting her out to the club, she would not listen; eventually she was the one that stayed.
Jimi Solanke… The man, the Father
BY TAIWO SOLANKE
How and where do I start to reflect on the enigma called Baba Agba, or as I fondly call him ‘my aburo’? My dad’s relationship with me, for as long as I can remember has been that of an older protective brother, always there with a listening ear, words of advice and encouragement! I can say on behalf of my siblings and myself that he’s the first best friend we all have; there’s never a dull moment around him. He’s not one to impose his beliefs or opinions on his children, though he involves/exposes them to his craft, his teachings are more about the benefits of hard work, dedication, being and staying principled and most of all enjoying and loving whatever you do!
I believe I have the coolest dad in the world, as attested to by all my friends who consider ‘my aburo’ their dad or uncle, till date. A lot of my friends remember times shared with him, case in point, I remember a day a few of my friends ran into him at the Students Union Building, University of Ibadan, as we sat down he asked what we would like to drink. I ordered an alcoholic beverage whilst my friends were asking for soda, my dad looked at them and said, ‘ok what, so only my son drinks alcohol? I don’t believe you people.’ He tells a joke and by the end of the evening, everybody had his brand of alcohol; he has a knack for making everyone around him comfortable.
I remember another incident back in my college days (some 20 something years ago) I ran into my dad on campus; he had come to see some of his friends at the Theatre department, on seeing me at the department he asked what I was doing there because I was not a theatre arts major. I told him I was there for rehearsals for a production I was playing a lead role in. First, the look that greeted me back was surprise, then it slowly turned to pride, then he went around letting everybody know ‘my son is playing a lead in a production on the same stage we founded, I am a proud father.’
‘My aburo’ is one of the most intense human beings I’ve ever come across in my entire life. This ‘intenseness’ stems from his very passionate love for life and everything he believes in, some of his attributes, I admire the most are his passion for giving. Jimi will gladly give the shirt off his back without batting an eyelid. He’s very selfless, very principled and uncompromising (sometimes to the point of rigidness), there have been so many situations where his principles could have been compromised by accepting a position, or influencing a decision with huge financial gains, without as much as a second thought ‘my aburo’ turns them all down much to my chagrin. And when I ask him why, he answers in his booming baritone ‘Taiiiwoo, I want to be able to live with myself in peace, sleep well at night and not have nightmares, or have people rain curses on my head everyday.’
Jimi Solanke has touched so many lives with his gifts and talents, especially children, hence his moniker Baba Ewe. Every day, I hear people I’ve never met before say at the mention of my dad’s name… “Oh, I remember that man from Storyland, I never used to miss that programme” or “some of my best childhood memories were the stories from Storyland,” these are people I run into here in the US. Every time I hear these comments, I’m humbled, because to me, he is just my father. I have since learnt to appreciate him the more, value his accomplishments the more, respect his gifts and talents the more, while understanding that I have a treasure that I can learn so much from at my disposal.
In conclusion, being Jimi Solanke's son has been a blessing in so many ways, it has open doors of opportunities, but most importantly, I've learnt how to be the best man, father and husband, I can be from the best dad in the world.
Happy 70th Birthday ‘my aburo!’