The Focus Magazine had an exclusive interview with the Octogenarian in 2022. Jimi Solanke, veteran dramatist, singer and actor was in UK recently to pick up an Honorary Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Field of Arts, courtesy Afro Hollywood. Apart from doing a few gigs around town, he also went into the studio to lay some tracks with ace producer, Kayode Samuels. In between his runs, the legendary Uncle Jimi Solanke granted an exclusive interview to the people’s magazine, Focus on the morning after a brilliant performance at Labalaba Restaurant the previous night. It was also the last day of his three weeks holiday in the Queensland. He opened up on many issues and also zeroed in on the present political dispensation.

Jimi Solanke spoke with The Focus Special Projects anchor, Jimi Akinniyi: 

It is a great pleasure meeting you after so many years of hearing about you, listening to you and learning about you, and of course, admiring you. If we can just have some intimate background of how Jimi Solanke really started.

Well it is an open story my dear namesake. Nice meeting you too. Well I was born 4th of July 1942, the son of Alfred Tayo and Wuraola Solanke, both of them of blessed memory. I was born in Lagos in the Olowogbowo area. And we came from Ipara, Remo. But grandfather had Egba marks. So you can see (that) the migrant situation of my people headed us to where we now claim. I went to Olowogbowo Methodist School, from where I went to National High then crossed over to Odogbolu Grammar School in Odogbolu after which I became a professional, because from school I have been praised for being able to write songs. While I was in school, I have been writing songs for big bands, Roy Chicago recorded some of my tracks: ‘Onile Gogoro’. Also ‘Oro re ti tan’, (which) I wrote while I was in school.  ‘Na today u come’. But when I moved from school, I worked at the Caxton Press, Eleyele, Ibadan, as an Assistant Engineer -in-Training. But I didn’t last long because I was not cut out for that kind of a job. So I ended up setting up a band with Orlando Julius. So you imagine it’s been that journey and the journey is still on and I am grateful to God.

You are a qualified musician, actor and dramatist. But you said that acting took a major part of your career. Can you clarify that?

While I was in Ibadan in the early sixties, I was popular for singing on radio. One very important programme that popularised me was Variety Hello Fans. (He hummed the signature tune). The producer was the late Akinwande Oshin. I had been interacting with a lot of people and not too far from NBC was Mbari club being developed at that time, with a host of geniuses like Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, Aigboje Igo, and Ralph Okpara who were all there. Because I was curious about arts and all that, I became one of the young boys who were being tutored, but I was a very close apprentice to Prof Soyinka then. So in 1963, there was an advertisement for the School of Drama to be inaugurated at the University of Ibadan. We were all advised to apply and I applied and I think about 14 of us were selected. It included myself, Tunji Oyelana, Yomi Obileye, Yewande Akibo (Now Mrs Yetty Edewor), Paul Worika and Giringory (James Iroha) to mention a few. We were all admitted for the drama course (and) that was how I got interested in Drama. It sort of flowed with me, to the (extent) that I am writing my own books (of plays) now. But since both acting and music work together, if you a good actor you will be able to sing and carry the emotions through to people. Likewise if you a good singer you will be able to act. But it’s been Drama because I love playing roles. So I have played a lot of roles. That is why I said that acting has taken a larger part of my performance in life.

Since you said that Acting is a major part of your career, and you seem to obviously earn a living from it, I wonder how come you have not ventured into the Home Video Industry.

You will be surprised that I came here to pick up an award on the Home Video situation. Not that I don’t or did not like playing. I have played some: ODUM, I acted the Regent in it, SANGO, I did the narrative voice and I was the old man that came out of the  Opa oranmiyan (The Staff of Oranmiyan) and AMIN ORUN by Dudu, and three others. It has to depend on the content of the story and has to be with who is involved. And one other thing, as a stage actor, I think I should still study how to act in such home movies. The energy, with which we drive characterisation on stage, is so different to the subtle simple natural carry on in home video movies. The stage actor in me will want to overact or over react when it comes to shooting these video scenes and I am always running away from such things because when you take that energy with which you attack a character on stage, to into a home movies, you will just be seen like a sore foot. And what more, there is that Yoruba adage that says if you want eat a frog, make sure that it is a frog that is loaded with palatable eggs. What I mean is that if you want to do anything the remuneration has to be there. The Yoruba movies especially they do it  like we do Owe. Owe in Nigeria, is a situation of Co operative, helping each other out when it my turn, you scratch my back, I scratch yours. To explain this some more, means you act I don’t have money to give you. When you are doing yours call me. And that is the reason why they have been able to raise the awareness of films into the level. But majority of us, with so many other projects we are handling, and I am not thinking of shooting a movie so I cannot beg them to come help.

What Award did you receive?

Outstanding Contributor to the Arts; Film Media. I thank them because it was very surprising to read that I have been given this award. I was even wondering when last I have been to London, how could they have known but it depends on what you have been doing. If you have a long list of presentation that you have been part of.  I am some body who will keep on doing and doing. I thank the African Voice who invited us for this Award.

Whether in Music or Acting, your main context is from the Yoruba culture. I’m sure at some point you must have had options. But you draw mainly from the Yoruba cultural elements for expressions. It may sound silly but I would like to ask why.

 As for my cultural depth. I say Cultural because all through my life, I have been able to portray seriousness about my culture. And this is due to the kind of people I work with. Even though Oga (Wole Soyinka) is one of the best English writers in the world, when you know him you will know that he is deeply culturally inclined. When we were apprenticing, you will know that he loves the culture, religion and everything. Even till now when you see him he will wear his Adire shirts. So you can imagine, when you have such an icon that you are understudying, there is no other way than for you to remain culturally attached. And not only the culture of the Yorubas because in Nigeria, a lot people will not that I am like an Octopus when it come to culture. I try to learn and investigate into other cultures of the people in my country. As for where and how, originally, I come from a compound that is a very culturally grouping up till now. We live in an Agbo – Ile, we live in an extensive family compound. My grandfather died a Lisa, My father died a Lisa. And I know that I don’t have the time to sit at home and be taking care of the town. But I know it is within my lineage it is Adeboye. When my grandfather was becoming a Lisa that was when I was born. That is why I am called Adeboye. I grew up with all the cultural embellishments that go on with a position like the Lisa. The rituals, festivals, And I cannot, regardless of so many international connections, exposures, I cannot. I rather remain very in depth cultural person. It’s part of my upbringing.

Still, on the same issue, I would like to know how you see the Yoruba culture because some people believe that Yoruba is very urbane. It’s like the more enlightened, the more educated you are as a Yoruba man, the more Yoruba you are. I just want to know how you feel about that.

 The culture of our people if you probe deeply into it, you will see that it is a high-grade pattern of life. So if you say elitist. I will not agree that it is elitist. I will agree that the people who handle some aspects of our culture are respected and given some kind of special treatment but they are not totally elitist in their give back to the community. They are part of the people but they are given those respects because majority of what they does, are very important to the community. Let’s take for example the Baba Mogba worshippers. If there is a breakout of fire, the first person the King contacts is the Baba Mogba. Because he knows the he has an understanding of Sango, the God of Thunder and Fire. His position in the hierarchy is respected. The same goes to the man in charge of the Ogun Shrine; anything that concerns accident is his responsibility. Maybe that could be the elitist aspect of it. When they come out they have their retinue. They are highly respected. We believe that the Yoruba culture has a lot of philosophical guidelines for somebody who has the opportunity to listen, for somebody who wants to learn. There are some statements, idioms, proverbs and eight-long phrases that when you do understand what they mean, you can never be at fault. Once you remember some proverbs like Omo a bi re kii rinde oru meaning when it is late, get on home if you don’t want to get in trouble. Two three sentences and by the time you translate it and you let know what you are faced with in the translations you will not be at fault. Such are the strength in the culture of our people. Food culture, Dress culture House culture. It’s only that we have mixed a lot of foreign traits with them nowadays. We now have Hybrid Palaver in culture that is the problem we are having now. But beyond that if you stay to the rule and regulations of my culture, you will very little problems with the world.

You have been actively involved in the Arts and cultural development of at least a very significant part of that country and it is obvious that you have traveled through different generations and different governments. I wouldn’t want you to comment really on the present political dispensation. But I don’t think we are fooling each other if I say things are not well back home. And obviously, it is affecting every sphere. I am very sure that things are not the way it was then when you were at the Academy of Arts. I just want to know from your own view what you think is wrong. It is another silly question.

When it comes to talking about the political situation of Nigeria. As was, is, now, we are witnessing. The Yoruba man says Ajala tan mo? And the answer is Eyin na ni. We have problems. The politics of Nigeria is kind of funny. I am a silent watcher of events. Politics you can never give it to me and I buy it for a penny. Particularly in Nigeria, I don’t like how it is been played. Let’s just Zero in on the current political situation. I have great interest. Immediately he got there, Ah mean my President, Olusegun Obasanjo, we started feeling a little bit comfortable. Look at the way he is handling the Fuel situation. At a time, they were using it as a political tool against those that have too many cars. They will make sure that they didn’t have fuel. Look at it some parts of the country are more enlighten than others do. Even a blindman can feel it with his walking stick. When people who had controlled over the fuel were doing it to the detriment to those who needed fuel. I was told.   And they were making a lot of money. But since he got there, there has been a constant flow of fuel and the kudos goes to him. How he did it I don’t know. You see if you want to talk about the nation’s politics you have to look at the infrastructure that is why I am starting like this.  When you talking about politics you talking about the Executive, the Legislature, the Senate, the Opposition and all that. Before I left home, there was rumour about the Obasanjo impeachment. Because it is in the constitution that he should not do this, he did it, when people turn politics into one on one; you don’t like the face of that man, my people will not make me handle that, Oh! I should make sure that I do this because I am in a position to disgrace that man: Look it is Politics of Bread and Butter that is what we have in my country. As long there is money involved, some comfort for you, that is when politicising becomes great thing to you. But what do you to the people. My country is the only place where the people that are supposed to be making laws are not making laws. See what I have been enjoying in this country. It is a politics of Mess. That is what we are doing there. Instead of thinking about the people that voted you into power, you think first of yourself first. That is not politics. Please don’t ask me about politics in Nigeria O! Because what we have is just Blackmail, Bo o ba o pa, Bo o ba o bu lese. Politics in my country is so cheap. I sympathised with the people doing politics in my country. They will tell they are in Party A and they are holding clandestine meeting with Party B and C. How can you concentrate on treating the people. That is why people are suffering. Just imagine the money made by Nigeria, kept within the executive, the Legislative because can you imagine everybody taking five hundred million and all of them will be in London drinking choice brandy eating in choice restaurant, where all us are hungry and dying there, Estacode here and there. Ah mean people should sit down play politics the way it should be played. Politics is a serious matter. See what I have been enjoying here since within the last few days that people had brought me here free of charge to come and relearn. That is why I can talk now. When you want to compare the politics you will see that we have scored nothing! Zero! It is just Backbiting Blackmailing. That is the type of politics we are playing in that place.

Since you had been around, you have been doing shows here and there. I also heard that you are working on a project album. What is that all about?

 Yes. Before I came here, this young friend of mine, Kayode Samuel, came to Lagos talked about releasing some of my old works. And I think that it is hightime that somebody takes that aspect of me. Because I have some master tapes that I have not even printed. We have the idea, gone to the studio, record it and just forget about it.  Maybe I’m studying a line in a play, and I do not want it to disturb me. Some times I print some and by the time give to friends, it is all over and I do not go back to it. So some of these works is what Kayode and his friend Quinton Scott are working on. In fact they he has just written a nice resume that they will be putting on the album. Some we want to put out a collection of my works from the sixties through the eighties. By the end of this year, work must have been through and I’m very sure that you will enjoy my musical extravaganza that has not been fully exploited. This time a lot of people will be able to have all those works that I have just been hoarding to myself. They are going to include my very first solo effort; In the Beginning,   Prayer for the World; Ase, America has got Magic, which was an album I did in America, and there is Orin Orisa; Cantos de la Santos. And recently I did some research on Reproductive Health and I came out with sensitising tracks based on various issues on reproductive health, from Female genital mutilation, HIV AIDS, to sexually transmitted diseases STD. I call the album Asakasa. Just wait for it I’m sure you will like it.

I will go back and ask one question regarding politics. Would you like to take up a political appointment? Probably something to do with the Arts.

Well it depends, at first when you started the question “Political Appointment” No. But to be appointed to salvage, help and put hard-earned experiences into  the artistic development of my country, I will say yes.  Because you do not let Art and Politics blend. You don’t join them together. Look at my Brother, Broda Fela Anikulapko, his problem starting when he wanted to be political and not only as an activist but even when he wanted to run for President. We all believed that he would have done a lot of good things, and that is where everybody in the other camp, the politicians, the military people thinking that is where he started his problems. And you will that until he died, he was not a healthy man. These were political reprisals, so politics is too dirty game. Politicians don’t like opposition. They want every body dancing to their tunes. And I do not like dancing to tunes because normally, I am not a man with a grade of diplomacy, I just love to be bohemian, I just want to be free, to be natural. People like would not want to have a political appointment par se except that he has changed his mind to go in there and know how much of the government he came to siphon. Look,

Politicians in Nigeria they live on the government, they suck the government and I do not want to be mentioned as one of them. And if they like they had better change now. What is my concern with themselves?  I don’t go knocking on their doors, they don’t need me I do not need them. But the truth is bitter and it must be said. I do not want to be in any political situation. But if there is hard open agreement, seriously consignment that says Baba Agbalaba please do this for us, I will do it. If the politicians in this country know that Arts, Music, Film, Painting and Sculptor everything cultural, everything artistic can make so much money, that will just leave the Oil face. What they don’t know is that what some other countries living on are the earnings of some top artist of their nations. Because if the Artist can make millions, his tax will run into millions. But do they know? No politics for me. Thank you.

So when will be coming back to see us Sir?

From here on there is no stopping us. You will be seeing my aged face from time to time. Because it’s been a long time that I have been to London. There are so many things that I will like to do. I am working on a play that was sent to me from Manchester. It is a play about Osun. I am just building it up for production in Nigeria. There are a lot of things that will be bringing me back to London. Only not during winter.

What are your students like today? Back in the days you have trained students that are today celebrities themselves. What are they really like? Do they have that dedication?

 Currently, I am the Artist-in-Residence at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Institute of Cultural Studies. The director is Professor Ishola Olomola. And the department that I am running, I have two graduates that are working with me on my play; Etiti – all eyes on you – I am always open. Nowadays, I share.  I don’t teach anymore. We share. Sharing is the most important aspect of my teaching experience. I have gone into villages to teach in that regard. We took the school into villages to teach Rice sellers, Bus Driver, Carpenters and taught them how to act. In this situation again, we share experiences with them. I have done it in about thirty to forty villages.

Can I understand a bit more about the term “Artist-in-Residence”

Yes as an Artist-in-Residence carries a lot of discipline and duties. I curate in the Arts Gallery, I create different programmes. I had a traditional Hair do and Head Care exhibition in performance; I had a traditional folk song galore. Traditional folksongs from all over the world. We have created a Culture club for the students and another one for the staff. I write and direct plays. It is a lot of work. You see I hate being in a position just by the name of it. I love being in a position where the work you are doing will justify your position. So I am not limited to just one issue. I would have fallen sick.