Storytime with Jimi Solanke
Jimi Solanke almost needs no introduction. If you were a child in Nigeria who grew up between the 70s and the early 90s, or an adult for that matter, you must have encountered this sprightly, baritone-voiced man with big, bright, expressive and cheerful eyes on your screens and at many cultural events. He held you spellbound with his stories and songs on Storyland aired on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and later African Stories on Africa Independent Television (AIT), as well as in stage plays and films.
Born July 4, 1942, Uncle Jimi Solanke as fondly called, graduated from the University of Ibadan, where he earned a diploma certificate in Drama. Solanke is part of our Nigerian culture, his interdisciplinary practice, embracing the literary, performing, dramatic and visual arts. A theatre and film actor, playwright, poet, folk singer, dancer and choreographer, Solanke is also an accomplished guitarist and keyboardist, who asserts he did the first rap in the world.
He recently staged a concert at The Jazzhole in Lagos tagged Our Songs and Other Songs—a fusion of his songs, our traditional folk songs and others from various cultures of the world. In this exclusive just before his 74th anniversary, Adebimpe Adebambo and Patricia Okorie sat with him to share his wealth of experience.
When you moved to the United States, what led you to create The African Review drama group?
The African Review drama group came to be when there were many requests for me by Black Americans to do some theatricals, storytelling and folktales, as well as sing some folk songs. So I selected about six people and started from small presentations at parties hosted by Black Americans, gatherings and festivals. It became so popular in the Los Angeles schools that the district office allocated hundreds of other schools for us to visit. We went to two or three schools in a day; this was how The African Review became very popular and busy. Some universities had their programmes but requested we come to perform. We even got invited to places outside California like Utah, Texas and Minnesota. Would you believe that it is The African Review that made me more of a storyteller? This is because, the majority of the requests from schools were to tell two or three folk stories and I was enjoying it! It’s not just about telling stories to people who are not from your culture. You must be strong enough to interpret the stories and make them know exactly what you are talking about. It takes a lot of acting, dramatizing the songs, and giving life to the different characters like the tortoise and lion. When I came back home to Nigeria, we did The African Review for children at the University of Lagos and the Lagos Television 8 (LTV8) came to record it. They edited 2 episodes and that’s how the Family Scene programme on LTV8 began officially on the channel. It became an instant hit! (starts singing) ‘Eni bi eni o eta nta gba, erin woroko ko arun ngbodo…’ That is how my storytelling in California returned home and took another dimension.
When did you decide to use storytelling as a major craft and distinguishing feature of your work?
When that experiment with LTV8 became so popular, it set me thinking about the necessity of my return to the United States. My oga, Professor Wole Soyinka said to me “Look at you, drop that American bag and sit down, let us do something here!” That was how in 1982, they got me back to Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), then called the University of Ife. Going back to LTV8 became cumbersome. It seemed the NTA must have seen Family Scene on LTV8 because they wrote inviting me to a children’s programme workshop at NTA College, Jos. I decided to go and while we were there, we created Storyland. There were two different children’s storytelling programmes offered at the workshop. We did about three episodes of Storyland in Jos. The format was such that when I start telling the story or folktale, small graphics would be inserted to bolster its purpose and content. (starts singing) Storyland, storyland, land of music and tales, storyland, storyland bring your friends along! It became very popular with the children; when such happens, it brings about other great things.
You won’t believe that till date, I am still enjoying myself because some aged gentlemen and ladies come to me saying, ‘I used to watch you on television and enjoy that programme’, and I would say ‘Ha!, how can you make me that old?’ (laughs).
I told you Professor Soyinka took me to OAU, Ife and so coming to Lagos to record the sessions became a problem with the uncertainties involved in the production like lack of funds and unavailable equipment. I got tired because I was coming to Lagos—a bushman like me coming from Ile-Ife, and staying around for days doing nothing. Later, they would come to my house in Ile-Ife and do the recording, editing and then show it. It soon became too ‘friendly’ especially when it got to payment as the director was my friend, so I just decided to stop.
The last television series for children I did was with African Independent Television (AIT); it was called African Stories. I spoke with Raymond Dokpesi and after recording several episodes, I received calls from North America and several different countries outside Africa like Sweden, saying they saw the series on TV. I greatly wondered what my programme was doing in those places and got angry. I told the station to stop showing it. Interestingly, I have recorded a 52-episode storytelling session with an independent producer, Glass House Entertainment, titled Once Upon a Time. It has not yet been aired. This lovely outfit I am wearing is one of the costumes used for the recording. When ready, Glass House will communicate their mode of broadcast.
When you returned to Nigeria, did you find things very different from when you left?
The National Theatre opened in 1976 during Obasanjo’s military era. I was one of the Nigerian artistes who performed at the opening. Before I left, we were doing serious theatre. We worked very hard and every week, we would produce plays. Many people queued up to buy tickets for performances.
It was wonderful and we thought it would continue but it was a different story when I returned.
Can you tell us about your Benin years?
I started out in Ibadan and moved over to Ile-Ife. Between 1971 and 72, we were doing plays by Ola Rotimi, the amazing playwright, as well as dance and choral productions. However, it was when we produced at the Ori Olokun Theatre, the story about Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi written by Ola Rotimi, the then military governor of the Mid-Western State, Brigadier-General Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia requested the production be brought to Benin. So we performed two nights at the Ogbe Stadium, which the governor had built. At the end, the governor said he believed that I was the king I portrayed in the play and that he would prefer I stayed back because an oba cannot stay outside of his dominion! (laughs!). That’s how an arrangement with the Mid-Western Art Council consumed me for years. I was a senior cultural officer at the council, so you can imagine. It was while I was in Benin that preparations for FESTAC 77 began.
I was in Benin in 1972 and in 1974; we were contesting for troupes that would represent Nigeria at FESTAC 77 and so we went to the National Stadium in Lagos to compete. By then, I had already left the Universities of Ibadan and Ife and was part of the mid-west contingent. We defeated other contestants from the Universities of Ibadan and Ife with a play, Home to the River written by the late Neville Ukoli. It is an Ijaw play and I played the role of Mudiaga. So we beat the department where I graduated from at the University of Ibadan, as well as the University of Ife that gave me to Benin! (laughs!). We were contesting for the group/team that will represent Nigeria in drama, music and dance at the festival. Professor Dexter Lyndersay, the Technical Director and Head of the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan lured me back to Ibadan. During the 1974/75 session, I was at the theatre arts department when they started talking about the drama they wanted to present at FESTAC.
Langbodo by Wale Ogunyemi was selected and the directorial aspect of it was handed over uncle Dapo Adenugba. I love working with him very much because of his directorial style. So in 1977, we all prepared Langbodo.
You have played lead roles in several of Ola Rotimi’s works. Which has been your most memorable and what was it like working with him?
Ola Rotimi was an amazing playwright and a fantastic crowd user. In most plays, he loved using large crowds of people. He put you in your own situation and told you, “Look, this is the person next to you.” Then, we toured Kurunmi throughout Nigeria. (He starts to dramatize and sing a scene from the play) We shall all die, gbere… The tortoise is going on a senseless journey. When will it come back home?
Rotimi is great and I love his works. May he rest in peace. I love Kurunmi, Our husband has gone mad again, and the gods are not to blame, as I played roles in most of them. However, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi is my most memorable because I remember playing that role. I had the opportunity of interpreting a king that rules. Though I was a much younger person in 1972, I performed very well with everyone the edge of their seats.
What was it like on the set of the film Kongi’s Harvest?
Those were the opportunities people like us had in those days to step down from the stage and into movie roles. Then, there were no video cameras that abound now. There were celluloid cameras with great directors like Ossie Davies who directed Kongi’s Harvest. There were also many opportunities around for you to train but my disaffection for these film situations is that as a trained stage actor, when you are immersed in a character and you hear “cut!”, because somebody else made a mistake, you get tired. Then you re-track and again hear “sorry cut!” That’s why I am setting up a centre in my hometown, Ipara Remo where stage plays will come alive again.
Can you tell us your experience as a writer?
Everything I do is all in one bundle. At times, writing is an aspect I use to express many of my thoughts. However, my poems have not been published yet. I consulted for UNICEF for over 15 years on women and child development, which was one of their several causes. When we were asked to take information to the people through advocacy theatre, we went to the villages, and then I started writing. I wrote about 40 scripts for UNICEF, which were to be published. The scripts are still with them, though I have my own copies. Alfonso Gumucio was then one of their directors. We were already at press in Ibadan when one Sierra Leonean officer who came through South Africa to Nigeria said they wanted it in the format of Theatre For Development (TFD), which they were doling out money for.
Then, we were doing popular theatre and I had to hand over my programme directly to Professor Femi Osofisan who was the Head of the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan. I called all the theatre handlers in different villages where I had taught popular theatre and told them that TFD was what they now wanted to do but which is not too far from what we were doing, so we should match it and hand over to them. Today there is no Theatre For Development but I am still here with my popular theatre. UNICEF is still looking forward to publishing those forty plays on breast-feeding, HIV/Aids, malaria, female genital mutilation, child spacing and so on. I have clips on all those topics and can still publish myself and put them out there. The reason I was happy to leave UNICEF was because they do not want to deal with individuals and groups like mine, they prefer to go through the government, and yet till date, nothing. I was given a four-year grant by the MacArthur Foundation to do theatrical advocacy for leadership development, which I did on reproductive health issues.
What inspired your collage artworks created from old newspapers?
I planned to teach children art in a segment on my television programme. I wanted them to learn how to put old newspapers and colours together and turn them into art forms. As this did not materialize, I started working on them myself. As the work progressed, it became clearer to me that this was more than just teaching children, and so I got better at it. As I was been unable to get back on television to teach children, I improved on my art, exhibited some and sold a few. At my centre for performing and creative arts enhancement in Ipara-Remo, we will hang about a thousand pieces at the special gallery for people to see while I continue to produce more.
You claim to have done the first rap in the world in 1977. Please tell us more about that?
That was in December 1977 in New York on a very cold, white Winter day. I got a call from Randy Weston, a jazz pianist saying “Jimi, please come to 42nd Street.” So I borrowed a friend’s jacket and out I went to the studio. When I got there, I met jazz greats like; Eric Gale, Hugh Masekela, Grover Washington, Miriam Makeba and of course, Ralph McDonald my great friend, the late Jamaican-American percussionist. I was given a write up in English and told it came from Ghana. They wanted it translated into Yoruba and for me to sound read it into music like a voice-over, then do a chant. That was the first rap anywhere in the world and the title is The Path by Ralph MacDonald. (starts to chant in Yoruba) ‘Ona la, o ja gbaragada aiyelujara…’
As a musician, your album Storyteller, which is a compilation of your earlier works, is a classic. Are you working on new songs?
Someone came to my house and took some masters of my songs to London. He decided to put them together and call the album Storyteller. I also went to London to record some aspects of it. I am in the studio right now working on two different albums; one for the children and the other, a collection of songs I wrote in the last 5 to 10 years. I have performed some of these for the Our Songs and Other Songs concert.
Having met the likes of Stevie Wonder in Lagos during FESTAC 77 and others like Hugh Masekela, Grover Washington and Miriam Makeba, did you do any collaboration while you were in the United States?
I did several stage shows, live presentations and in fact, performed with a galaxy of stars at the re-opening of the 125th Apollo Theater. In Los Angeles, I also did some albums, with Carlos Santana on one of them. This album is for ‘Santeria’, by that I mean, we sang for Christ and they sang with so much intensity of things they did not know about like orisa, including Osun, Sango, Obatala and Orunmila—in fact the pantheon of Yoruba gods and goddesses.
You were very much involved in FESTAC 77, what was the experience like?
Like I said, I had the opportunity of representing Nigeria in the different genres of the performing arts I worked across. I sang baritone folk solo and played Akaraogun in Langbodo. I was in charge of a dance group from Ogun State and had keys to different flats and rooms, one as an assistant director of a play and a second as lead actor in another play. It was very interesting then, but I wish people didn’t take FESTAC 77 in the manner they do now. Some ‘Christians’ gave it a bad name, that it was ritualistic and the reason we are in this situation. I am a Christian but I don’t know what exactly they are talking about. They have forgotten that artistes don’t steal money and don’t sign cheques. The whole gathering was of top artistes from all over the world. They were all here with different kinds of presentations, artworks and costumes. They rehearsed for hours, days, weeks and months before they brought their costumes here to be exhibited, worn in plays or used as part of their performances.
I don’t think such a gathering of arts and artistes can ever happen again because then, we had enough money to plan for it. People still live in the FESTAC Village. Infrastructures like the National Theatre, which was in place should still be running properly if we had the proper attitude to maintenance but ‘na chop and die we dey’!
You were a lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife. How was it for you and when did you stop lecturing?
That was a long time ago and I am no more a lecturer there. I stopped with the department of dramatic arts in 1986. Every other thing I did thereafter with the institution was on contract and because of the mere fact that I have my own palace in Ife, though I am not competing with the Ooni! (laughs).
You work across all the genres of the arts, what is your favourite aspect?
The Yoruba man says ‘nkan eni ki di meji’ loosely translated as ‘what is yours does not become two!’ As am sitting down with both of you, I have been singing within me, acting through the interview, as well as dancing and moving. Every aspect I know makes me live; they all make me function. These days I love singing. I started out as a singer but no matter what area of art I got into, I still loved it because I had the freedom to stand in front of an audience and express myself with my voice. It is interesting to see how what is coming out of your mouth is affecting people especially when you are an actor; you must be able to interpret the song you are singing, and that might be part of why the audience will love watching you.
You were ostracized from your family because you chose to work in the arts. What do you tell people who would like to follow this path but don’t have family support?
That challenge made me stronger. I could not even enter my father’s house or talk to any of my siblings because they had all been warned, ‘if you dare talk to that boy!’ My mother was ostracized; she had to move to her family home where I crept to visit her. All that happened because she supported me. She told me what a child wants and loves to do cannot kill him. My father knew my mother was backing me, so he gave her a hard time. Things got better and he apologized before he died. When he was sick, I carried him around and had to take him to my house at Ife. The vice chancellor was treating my father and even taking him for treatment at Ilesa. Would you believe that since 1989, he had given me 10 hectares of land, which I didn’t know about because he didn’t tell me? I am presently developing it. He was surely then vacillating between giving me or not. Eventually, we loved each other because when I was settling down with my wife in 1983, he started coming to my house to stay over. When he died, we gave him a befitting burial. These days are different, it seems many people want their children in the arts. There are even homes where they invest millions of naira to help their children to become artistes. I will not mention names but I know things are getting better. If you are serious about becoming an artiste, and want to live the life of one, stand your ground against any challenge because if you don’t, you would be misdirected and turned into a wreck! You would be hanging between the devil and the deep blue sea. Stand your ground and face your work seriously because as long as you are a good artiste, it is definitely well with you.
What message do you have for the younger generation?
I will implore them to be very professional and focused. This industry is a time consuming one. If you are not ready to put life into it and not convinced or ready for it, I see no reason you should go for it.
It is not a party! Look at all the international artistes, they are serious people and even if you have money in your pocket and jobs are still coming in, you should not let that get into your head! Once you think like that, you will lose focus and abuse the industry, disgrace and disrespect it. If it gets to your head, it will burst! Be careful!