Jimi Solanke is known as a songwriter, actor, performer, visual artist, poet and storyteller extraordinaire. Easily recognized by many over generations, thanks to his unique style of reciting folktales with his booming golden voice backed up with guitars, singing in different tones, using passionate gesticulations and mimicry to drive the message home to his young and not so young listeners.
‘Uncle Jimi’, as he is fondly called by fans and admirers, remains a common feature in major stage plays in Nigeria and around the world. He played lead roles in Death and the King’s Horseman, Kurunmi, Chattering and the Song, Kongi’s Harvest, Ovoramwen Nogbaisi, The Divorce and many more. He starred in several shows on Nigerian Television (NTA) starting from the 1960s to date, including The Bar Beach Show, For Better for Worse, Village Headmaster, Family Scene on Lagos Television (LTV), Children’s Half Hour, Storyland, African Stories on (AIT), Sango – The movie and many others. If you have watched television in Nigeria at any time during the last six decades, you must know Uncle Jimi.
Born 4 July 1942 in Lagos, Jimi Solanke was mentored by Wole Soyinka, Ola Rotimi, Akin Euba, Peggy Harper, Dapo Adelugba and Demas Nwoko. He was one of the first set of graduands of The School of Drama, by the Institute of African Studies, the first in Africa at the University of Ibadan. It later became the Department of Theatre Arts. Solanke joined the Department of Dramatic Arts, University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University OAU) in 1969. He is an Associate fellow of the Institute of Cultural Studies.
Solanke composed Onile Gogoro, Eje ka jo, Jenrokan, Na today you come and he was the lead voice in Ralph MacDonald’s “The Path” recorded in New York 1977 and a consultant for Theatre for Development, UNICEF, UNFPA, Women and Children’s Health.
More about his 60-year long career in this exclusive interview with Eyes of Lagos Boy below:
You are 78 this year, is there anything you think you would have done differently?
Yes, 77 going on 78? I am not counting at all, I believe I still have much to do. There was never a step l took that l will not take again if l have the ”chance” to repeat life one more time. You are there already, why regret? I will never sit down to sing dirges of regret over my life.
What have l missed? Nothing. I have great children in whom l am well pleased. I have a house in Ile-lfe where the best of the artistic spirits dwell. If death refuses to come close to you, with all the signs of ageing, have this at the back of your mind, there is still a lot of work you have to do till death comes knocking. “Baoku, ise ko tan” (no death, no idleness). God bless me.
Can you tell us about your big project, the artist village you are building outside Lagos?
I am finishing work on my centre in my hometown lpara-Remo (Ogun state). A wise Yoruba saying states “lle ni abosinmi oko” – you will eventually end up in your place of origin. No matter where you have been, you will come back home. This is exactly what is happening to me. I am about to complete my home theatre, where theatrical performances will take place. The stage is built and but for the lockdown, it would have been completed already. A trip from Lagos to the artist village takes only approximately 30 minutes. Any program we are planning can easily take on the Lagos crowd. We want to start experimenting after COVID-19. Looking forward to seeing you.
Some people say you love hot Gulder beer, could that be one of the secrets of your longevity?
You know what? It’s the taste. Try it any day, a hot Gulder will keep its taste whereas a cold Gulder would have lost its taste due to the time spent in the fridge. All over the world, great connoisseurs of wine will never allow an expensive bottle of wine near a fridge or freezer. The taste would have perished and a good part of our drinking wine would have been eroded. Hot Gulder for life.
Do you remember your first gig?
l have been holding audiences spellbound starting with my school performances during Parents and Teachers’ Day. I was sneaking into Abalabi Nite Club, Olorunsogo to sing with Roy Chicago’s Band. l was able to be on my own in lbadan and l took the opportunity straight without looking back. I joined the School of Drama in 1963, so from 1961 to 1963, l was just enjoying myself singing with any band available, Victor Faulkner’s band, Zen Phillip and the Blue Nine at the Central Hotel. The Eddy Okonta band at Paradise Club in the Gbagi area of lbadan. Finally, I ended up with Chris Ajilo and the Cubanos, we were then at the Gangan Nite Club, an elitist place owned by the Western Region Government in the Apata area of lbadan.
Who were the people that inspired you?
I drew inspiration from all the people l had the opportunity to work with. I was determined. The home front had no prayers nor “wish you well” for me. I was on my own. I had to face the profession squarely. Thanks to Roy Chicago, Baba Akinwande Oshin, Kunle Olasope, Fred Ojudu, Chief MS Sowole. All these people were the foundation members of my development.
Folktales and storytelling are some of the many arts you are known for. Are they still relevant to kids now that the internet has taken over?
We are talking about children’s entertainment. You should not refer to relevancy. I brought all the experiences as a top theatre artist in this land to the fore, as it is done in Europe, China, Russia and all other places where children are celebrated and entertained. Today, some of our great young men drawing cartoons are warming up to present their products to our children. The most important is to use a language they understand and tell your own story.
When was the time you realized that the messages you stand for are important and people are listening and watching?
As a singer l write songs that the listeners can find a message in or an aspect of our culture. Most importantly l must say here and now, l am a folksinger! I worked on becoming one. Any type of music I play, some cultural seed must be sewn into it. People started complimenting me a long time ago. I respect my audience and l do not want to disappoint them. In cases like us, l mean artists in our genre, we remain in the memory of our fans and friends and that is special. Till tomorrow I must maintain high-quality integrity. Dollars do not make an artist. All aspects of humanity that surround him are important.
What sets you apart from others?
In all the arts that l have taken as my profession, music, theatre, dance, I make sure that l interpret roles painstakingly. That is the job of an actor. The reason why l am teaching and training stage actors is so they will be able to play with me. We have different schools of acting in Nigeria today. I believe they are rolling out actors in large numbers. We have customized acting in this land and our special acting style has come to stay.
I am grateful for the gift of voice. When l sing, those who recognize me will say ”that is Jimi Solanke.” I select the songs l sing, l choose the roles l play. I am not that interested in counting how many roles one has played. I lived in Hollywood before and you do not count your rating based on how many roles one has played. One first time role can turn your life around. As for dance, this whole body of mine has created dance expressions both at home and abroad. These days my fear with dance is that the bones inside my body are already complaining. Then l dance like an elder, yet l can dance.
What music did you listen to as a young man?
As children we enjoyed the music our parents listened to. In those days of Joe Nez. In those memorable days of Rio Lindo. And of course, all the Juju bands and other social music in the genres of Sakara, Apala, Dundun, Waka and Bembe. In those days lyrics, good ones, were the order of the day. All the musicians were trying to beat each other in making sense and sharing moralistic messages with their listeners. At the same time, in homes like ours, because of the exposure of our parents, we listened to some other types of music from top bands of international repute. Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Bing Crosby and the rest. These were the musicians who poured unforgettable lyrics into our lives. They made me know how to sing the range of songs we termed “classical “. This is when my interest in becoming a good singer was developed. Then the Highlife era took off with E T Mensah. Bobby Benson, Charles lwegbue, Roy Chicago. All of these bandsmen reeled out tunes memorable to date.
What advice would you give your younger self?
There are so many distractions all over. If a younger person is not serious, he will sink into a quagmire of nothingness. The economy is not on the side of anybody. If the younger me is hardworking, he must apart from his love for the arts, train in some trade that will bring in some money. I have said before that artists, in general, must obtain a practical knowledge of some handwork that you can fall back on for sustenance. I am currently at home spending good time on these collage arts. I know, when the era of death is over l will exhibit and make some small sum. It is better than just being idle.
Be innovative with your mind. There is nothing out of a serious mind that will not have its exposure. We do not know when the COVID-19 pandemic will end. How do you survive if you have no “Plan B”? Chains on your neck, earrings decorating your ears, sagged pants to prove that you have arrived, American ghetto slang in your mouth plus all the drugs to reach the “high point” are not the signs of a true artist. Step down son and see us as we are, it will be best for you, cheers.
How many albums have you recorded? Which one is the most outstanding one for you?
I have released lots of albums, now just being me, l hate counting these artistic creations. Just like my people, you do not have the right to count my children right under my nose. It is taboo. My albums are; Eke ka jo(Let us Dance), In the beginning, Ase, Storyteller, America has got magic, Orin Orisa, Multiplicity of Praise, Hidden Gold and Once upon a time.
When l was consulting for UNICEF, l wrote a lot of advocacy and they were recorded. I am listening to the tracks now and thinking l should release them to the public. There are series of other collaborative albums made both at home and abroad that really projected me. “The Path” by Ralph MacDonald and others.
Who are the young artists you have worked with?
From a long time ago, l have had an interest in working with young people. The majority of the boys I started with are now leaders of their own bands. Laolu my sakara player has a band in Akure. Gbenga Jnr. has a band in Osogbo. Sunday has one top band in Ogbomoso. I released an album with the singing doctor, Ade Adebajo (Poskii) in 2018. It is like a college without walls.
This has been my joy and what l can count as having achieved something. Till date, if l have the opportunity l will go on stage with the Freedom Five (Freedom Park inhouse band) and sing with them all night. Their energy will carry me through.
In recent days l had time to listen to a small jazz group in the music department of Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU- Ife). I got fascinated by their music and invited them to lpara to perform with me at the Pro Chancellor’s house.
How do you suggest the government assist artists in this coronavirus period that has negatively affected large gatherings?
The appearance of this coronavirus has really proven that the artists of this nation are in big trouble. Very few can truly feed themselves minus lockdown, now see what is happening. Since l am one of them, l know that there has not been any party or occasion. The government has no interest in the arts. Why? Because they do not know the importance of the arts. Go to the state of California, arts used to dominate their IGR. Only a few years ago Silicon Valley started adding its inputs. Let our government put the package for the care of artists on the front burner and they will soon discover that “art is the next best alternative to oil”.