He says he is 17. But he is an accomplished folk music artiste, playwright and actor.
“You know, I put 1 before the 7, not the 7 before 1, because I’m starting now to count,” he explained jokingly. Actually, Jimi Solanke is a sprightly 71-year-old, with an infectious joy, exuberant personality and a great sense of humour.
Small wonder the man fondly called Uncle Jimi captured the love and adoration of a nation with his heartwarming children’s programmes on Nigerian television stations many years ago – including the very popular ‘Storyland’ – with his master story telling.
In this exclusive interview, Uncle Jimi, who started his singing from the church choir and married the daughter of a reverend, shares some captivating stories of his childhood, as well as his life and times in the arts.
SUI : Back in your days, people in the arts – music, dance, fine arts, drama, amongst others, were not so popular. How have you been able to manage being a stage actor, musician, and an academician (at some point)?
JIMI SOLANKE: Let me confess, I ran away because my acceptance at home was very low then. I had the opportunity of going to the first school of drama, the University of Ibadan, where I got into the academy section of the arts.
I became an actor, a set builder, a dancer, and choreographer, and had been with the university from 1963 till date. My consistency made people to take me seriously. But then some said that my kind of job was not worth it and even went to the point of persuading my uncle, Chief M.S Sowole, then Commissioner for the Western Region, to give me a job.
I took the job but still went to places where I sang all through the night and came back early in the morning. By then, I was not able to even climb a ladder to change a bulb or touch a pipe in the ceiling. I had to run away from that job because if I dozed off on any of those ladders, I could have injured myself and that would have been the end of it.
I enjoyed acting in the university and still do, but singing is my first love. That’s why I stepped back from acting nowadays. I prefer singing than acting. I am first a musician.
SUI : What instruments do you play?
JIMI SOLANKE: I play the guitar and keyboard, at least to accompany me when I sing.
SUI : How many albums have you done?
JIMI SOLANKE: I have done about 18. I’m currently working on another two.
SUI : There was an album you did some time ago with an American artist?
JIMI SOLANKE: Yes, that was ‘The Path’ by late Ralph MacDonald, the Jamaican-American percussionist. A lot of American performers came to Nigeria during FESTAC, like Stevie Wonder and I touched shoulders the night he performed at the National Theatre.
After on of my performances, somebody next to him said, ‘Oh that’s Jimi Solanke o’ and so he gave me his card. When the Festival was over, I decided look at it. The message read, “you need a trip out of the country, a holiday per say.’ So I took a trip afterwards; first to London, then Trinidad and Tobago, and then America towards the end of November. I had already stayed for some few days when someone called me, saying that they had discussed with a lot of people, but wanted me to do a voice-over in Yoruba… So I borrowed my friend’s jacket and went to the studio… and they were all there; Grover Washington, Hugh Masekela, late Miriam Makeba… name them, top names, top brands artists. So they said they wanted to translate this English poem into Yoruba and then do a chant. Would you believe that was the first rap in the whole world? (Laughing)
SUI : So you did the first rap in the whole world?
JIMI SOLANKE: Yes, that was the first rap (Starts singing the poem in Yoruba)…
Ona la, aiye lu jara…
Nobody had ever done that kind of thing. That was in 1977.
SUI : What did FESTAC do for Nigerian and African art, especially as some believe that this was the time that many fetish things in other African countries were brought into Nigeria?
JIMI SOLANKE: I’m very sorry for that negative part of FESTAC. But it’s disappointing that people carry such negative notions about FESTAC, because if you do not know where you are coming from in this new millennium, you will not know exactly where you are going. Let’s be realistic, there was no Satan in the package people brought here through their respective dances and religions, it’s only in the Bible and Quran…
I am a Christian, but maybe my understanding of religion is different… People just have different connotations. Do you know the reason why FESTAC hasn’t been done anywhere again? Because nobody could do it like we did it then.
SUI : Were you involved in the planning?
JIMI SOLANKE: I went around with (late) Anthony Enahoro looking for dancers all over. In Nigeria, I was an actor and an actor trainee in the drama production. I was also an assistant choreographer in the dance section and a folk singer in the music section. FESTAC was an eye opener for me because I interacted with people from different parts of the world. I didn’t just read it from history books. I’m very sure that we will be the one to host another one again.
SUI : Do you think the Federal Government gives enough support to the arts sector in Nigeria?
JIMI SOLANKE: (Olusegun) Obasanjo (then a military ruler) did in those days. In ’76, when the National Theatre was opened, I was the folklorist and rounded up the night singing some traditional Egba songs.
Unfortunately, Nigeria has not made enough money from the arts because of greed and selfishness. Ask the United States of America the amount of money they are making out of their artists. They won’t say it, but we all know about it. And everyone is involved, not just the government. Here in Nigeria, the government is greedy and they don’t even care. I’m familiar with a lot of them in government.
At 71, I am still strong because God has put me in the kind of profession that He wants me to be. I will live as long as He allows me. I don’t care whose ox is gored, but some people are just selfish and they cannot see the beauty of the arts. And when you are an illiterate in your mind, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Ph.D. holder, professor, or have so many certificates in your bags, you are not learned. For people in positions of power not to know the importance of arts, that is illiteracy.
SUI : Where were you born?
JIMI SOLANKE: I was born in Lagos, Lagos Island precisely. I schooled at Olowogbowo Methodist School. Now, I live in Ile-Ife and I’m happy about it.
My parents had built a house in Olorunsogo, in Mushin. But, when I went to Ibadan for a job they got me at Cactus Press, I turned into a singer, singing for different kinds of bands. I never came back to say hello to them, because they never wanted me around in the first place.
SUI : Were they ashamed of you because you were a musician in those days?
JIMI SOLANKE: Yes. I was ostracized by my family back then. I was asked not to even say hello to my friends, but I knew and did what I wanted to do. Things have changed since then. My father died praying for me; because he eventually found out that there was nothing he wanted that Jimi would not give him. I stayed over in Ibadan at the School of Drama between 1960 and 1969. I later moved to Ife and I’ve been there since. I just love Ife. Although I travel out sometimes, I still come back.
SUI : You were born in Lagos. What was it like growing up in Lagos Island at that time?
JIMI SOLANKE: It was fantastic! We could play football on the road because there were few cars then. We could play with the water in the gutter, build small boats from match boxes and race them in gutters, because thin wooden cardboards were used to make match boxes in those days. A lot of good things happened. We had fewer students in the classrooms. I started singing from church choir, at Holy Trinity Church, on the mainland. That foundation has been sustaining me.
SUI : Are your children also artistic in any way?
JIMI SOLANKE: Yes, all of them have the traits of artistry. For instance, one of them who lives in Philadelphia, Kehinde, is a Ph.D. holder in Theatre Arts; Taiwo is a television presenter who now lives in Houston, Texas; and their elder sister, Oyinkan, who lives in England, designs. Seun is a computer freak and another went to study make up and all that.
One of my daughters also sings very well. She can sing in the church and anywhere she finds a band. She is very talented. And the baby of the family is in part four, Dramatic Arts, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. Also, I have children who, although they are not interested in music, have talents.
SUI : Your children seem to have followed your footsteps. Do you think this was as a result of your influence, one way or the other, or that you let them choose their career paths?
JIMI SOLANKE: I left them to be free. How can I now be the chairman and decider of another person’s fate? Although they are your children, you cannot decide their fate; you can only guide them.
SUI : Much has been said about Ulli Beier’s influence on Nigerian art, writers and artists, such as Duro Ladipo, among others. Did he also influence you in any way?
JIMI SOLANKE: Baba Beier! I was one of those who participated in the many workshops he created. I knew him from Mbari. Duro Ladipo met Ulli Beier at Mbari (club), in Ibadan, Oyo State. After they met, he was invited to come perform at various places.
Duro also became interested in the word Mbari, which means ‘open space’ in Igbo language. One evening, at his bar called Popular Bar in Osogbo, he told Beier, who had visited him a lot of times in Osogbo, that ‘this your Mbari is one word we have to use here and I’m going to set up my own centre.’ He later changed his bar to Mbari Mbayo (a Yoruba expression for happiness).
SUI : Obviously, the arts made you famous. Has it also made you rich?
JIMI SOLANKE: Yes, I’m fine. You see, I don’t want to be like the people I (had) talked about, (but) I’m wearing a Movado and they don’t buy it for three pennies. I have my own house and I’m comfortable. My children are very happy. I’m giving one out in marriage soon, which would cost about six million naira.
SUI : To marry out your daughter?
JIMI SOLANKE: Yes
SUI : Only a rich man’s daughter…
JIMI SOLANKE: (Cuts in) We are already buying clothes and paying. I gave him that poor car, that red one. (pointing to a red SUV in rgw parking lot)
SUI : That’s not a poor car, sir…
JIMI SOLANKE: It’s a poor car.
SUI : In Lagos, It’s only rich men who drive such
JIMI SOLANKE: No, richness is from your mind. I wonder why we cannot describe a rich man in Nigeria and not talk about his house in Lekki or another one in Abuja. That’s why they die just like that, unsung. I don’t want materialism to prove my richness, but I want realistic appreciation.
I have a nice wristwatch. Yes it’s material. But when you have money, you buy one of such things, because they last forever. It’s the quality you are buying, not the materialistic grading of such things.