I will die a dramatist – Jimi Solanke
Olujinmi Adesoye Solanke, Jimi Solanke for short, is one Nigerian in many fields. A prolific playright, reknown poet, peculiar folk singer and a gifted fine... artist. He warmed himself to the hearts of many through his various children programmes, especially Storyland which used to be very prominent on government and privately owned television stations in Nigeria. Ironically,while growing up, he was fond of dismantling and putting objects back together at the slightest chance. So, it was very easy for his relatives and close associates to conclude that he would grow up to become an Engineer. The Ipara Remo-born artist, in this interview with YEMISI ADENIRAN, spoke on his lonely childhood, his dream of setting up a Performing Arts school soon, his love for advocacy in reproductive health and why he decided to discontinue Story land and other children programmes he anchored on different television stations.
What attracted you to arts?
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 objects and put them together. I used to do movies using candles, have other children watch while I played the role of a narrator. I never knew I could end up a performing artist. I used to make a sukunobia for the muslims then. This involved visiting houses to beg for alms with my muslim friends. It is a first square thing with a candle stand built in it. All these while, I did not know the implications and my main target remained engineering. My uncle who had a casting company then, made me the assistant technical officer just to build up on my dream and to make me understudy the job.
At what point did you retrace your step?
The thing is whenever I got home then and I saw my hands soiled in oil and gum, I would just shake my head and felt 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. I was reported to my uncle and his instruction was that I conformed to his wish or leave his house. 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 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 song writer. I later got involved in drama.
But why did you pitch your tent with the kids?
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 Story land 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, educational and morally rich.
Why then did you stop the programme?
I got tired and I just called it quit with them. It was Story land on NTA stations and African stories on AIT and Galaxy. But I always run into problems with each of the stations one time or the other, so I got put off and had to stop. And I have one habit: Once I stopped doing or pursuing a thing, I don't go back there. I don't have any regret and don't think of it anymore because already I am thinking of what next to do, how to do it. But all the same, I am still very endeared to the children of Nigeria, because they need to be tutored in the most favourable way. If you do not try to set a pace for them, to be fully acculturated, it would affect them negatively. You'll notice that my programmes did not present me as a person with a particular ethnicity. A lot of people don't even know whether I am Ibo, Yoruba or Hausa and it is because I have created that aura around me and that was good for me as an artiste. To boost my versatility in the customs and peculiarities of other tribes, I made research through reading and travellings to have a feel of what is obtainable there. I tried to get acquainted with their language, maybe just their traditional songs and ancient history as much as possible, so I could sing it properly. It could also be in their costuming, maybe the attitude I came face to face with when I'm doing the research. I would then put them all in in my story. Each time I recall my trip to such areas in the programmes, to prove, to all Nigerians that we are all one maybe that's what a lot of people don't know about me. 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 the said youth.
I thought you said you are done with the children programme?
No I am not. I cannot give up on children's programme. In fact right now, I am grateful to God because the set of university students on different campuses all over Nigeria were those who were privileged to listen to some of the programme I had on the TV one time or the other. Time after time, I run into them and always they refer to it seeking its return to the screen. Whenever they say 'Uncle Jimmy I used to enjoy your programme,' I feel uncomfortable. I don't want it to sound like that anymore. Instead, I want it to be in a present continuous tense because as God would have it, I have easily touched about three to four generations of children in Nigeria alone. If you are talking about some children that I have touched on television and radio (WNTV, Radio Nigeria) between the 60/70's and now, you are definitely going to lose your count. Many of them have grandchildren that have also been touched.
What are you doing currently?
I am into fine arts now, focusing on the use of colours. We have exhibited about 200 before and I am still working on more. That doesn't stop me as a man of the kiddies. I am writing one book against my 70 th anniversary year on earth.
When will that be?
I am 67 now. So, that would be 2011. It is not really going to be a launching programme per se, it's just going to be part of the activity. Somebody advised that I should do it just like other people are doing it and I am just going to do that. Let there be something that the world would read about you.
Your wife is obviously much younger than you. How did you meet her?
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 these. 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 all the necessary food stuff 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 food stuff 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 83. 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 and 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.
Where is she from?
Lagos State, Badagry. Most parents would say Lagos girls are high grade girls, her father was from Badagry.
What stood your rested programmes out those days?
I guess it was the story telling attitude and the ability to draw graphical illustration to accompany the story that did the magic. 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.
What was the experience like?
It was not so easy but the passion that I have for the job kept me on. Then, I would live Ife to Lagos and in two to three days we have 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.
How then do you unwind?
When I am not doing anything, I prefer sitting down in my studio, writing play and generally doing some creative thinking. I am not the kind of person that just sits down in idleness. I prefer staying in the house than going out, I love having something to do at every given time and it may also interest you to know that I am an indoor person. I can be in the house for a whole day doing one thing or the other and those in the house may not know. For instance, I have not stepped out of this house since Monday and today is Wednesday. I rarely stayed longer than expected outside, except it is absolutely important and then it won't be in Lagos.
What are some of the awards you have won before?
You know I just took them off the wall because my wife and I were joking about it: the whole corridor was filled with them. I had to take them off because my wife does not have an award. Out of them all, I have about 10 prominent ones in the living room now from America, London and have been slated for two or three more before the end of this year. I'm grateful to God. A life time achievement award was given to me by the Obafemi Awolowo University.
You have just released a musical album. What's the attraction? Are you dumping drama for music?
Not on my life. I will live and die a dramatist. But for now, I should be in a consultancy section that will just be giving directives to dramatists. The same thing is applicable to my music career. However, for the records, my involvement with music is as ancient as my acting career. Over the years, I have had albums that sounded my name all around the world. One of them was a combination of me, Ralph McDonald, Gilbert Washington, Eric Gale, and all the great ones in music in America. The title was “The Path”. It was released in 1978. It had all the great people like Late Mariam Makeba and her former husband, Ralph McDonald, Mikky Marero, David Sambourn, Valerie Simpson and plenty other people. It was very big in America then and it went places, especially in the middle of the 70s. I have played with different kinds of bands such as Zeb Felix, Orlando Julius with whom I set up a band that the elder brother IK Dairo laid then. He was sponsoring us then and it was called The globetrotters. Right now, I have my own band that is making waves everywhere. We play old school tunes to entertain older people because I cannot sit down to listen to all the songs they sing nowadays. I am just not used to them. I prefer to sit down with my boys and play some songs that would bring peace into my mind . Ever since we have taken off, I have discovered that there are so many people like me seeking succour in such music, so we are are regularly booked to play. We are called the folksingers and since I am experienced in this before, it gives me no stress at all. In fact, I feel more youthful whenever I am performing.
What legacy do you intend leaving as an artiste?
I have decided to set up a school of Performing Arts and active work is currently going on on it. The proposed site is Iperu Remo, my home town. It is not too far from Lagos. The intention is to make it closer to everyone, whether you live in Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta or Ijebu, your access to the school is guaranteed. Through this school, I intend to advocate for a lot of issues of concern, even reproductive health.
Why reproductive health advocacy?
One thing many don't seem to understand is the fact that we write scripts of even the songs we sing before singing. So, it is nothing short of advocacy and one thing that goes with it is that if you want to sing about a subject without studying it, you will just be failing at your advice to people about it. So, when I was with the McCarter Foundation and I had to sing about reproductive health, I really went studying reproductive health extensively such that I knew a lot of things about it. The exposure also extended to all my daughters now as benefits for them in marriage. With one or two directives from the knowledge I have gained, they have all come around to testify to great and safe reproductive experience.
How do you unwind?
If I want to unwind, I have a lot of friends, that every topic we discuss turns out to be comedy. So, I laugh a lot when I was with them. I am somebody who is at peace with myself and with the world and that has given me the opportunity of peace within and without. So, unwinding to me is part of the process of living. I don't run after things I don't need, I prepare for a lot of things early enough before they come on board. I don't envy people. I am simply comfortable and contented with this little boys quarters that I have. As far as I know, contentment is the foundation of a day. If you are contented, you are unwinding at every heart beat. I am totally unwinding as the day develops. There's no special time or way for me to unwind. I read a lot, I write a lot, I discuss what I don't want, inform my wife about it and we discuss and then iron it out. If we need to pray, we pray, if we need to do Bible study, we do it right away. This is my own formula for unwinding: every second, I joke with my wife; she jokes with me, we laugh over it, I think it's a better way if one can establish it.
What's your favourite food?
This might sound strange but the truth is I don't have any food that I call my favourite. I am not a food lover at all even when my wife remains a great cook. But,when it comes to food, my wife and the children will always hold a meeting on what to cook, and still they will ask for my own suggestions that really don't count because it is whatever they cook that I will always eat. A lot of people have asked me why but I always tell them that it is just my policy. I belong to different kinds of societies, some prefer special tuwo with, gbegiri and ewedu, others prefer amala or pounded yam with efo riro or efo elegusi, but, it means nothing to me. If it comes fine, if it doesn't come fine. I am not like some people who will become very angry when their special menu is delayed.
Have you ever been embarrassed on this job before?
It was when we were playing Rere run. I was the first Lawuwo, the lead character and it was directed by Professor Ola Rotimi. At one of the recent productions many years after, they were in the costume room and I was just playing a member of the chiefs who were trying to convince Lawuwo to be on their side and then there was a disagreement between me and one of the younger ones. We were given each character: You play one day and then another person would play it the second day, and it was my turn to play, and the boy was saying it to my hearing that I have been playing the role since, so I should leave it for somebody else to play. He was saying that I had no shame that I should leave the place for the younger ones. I have never been embarrassed like that in my life. By the time we finished with that scene, I just went to sit down, rested my back at one corner and I was thinking. It got me weakened that by the time we were to play the next scene, I became bored and lost concentration on the entire play. Unlike before when I'd be moving up and down in the theatre, chewing my lines and keeping my character, I was just cold