By Professor Tunji Olaopa

I just must do this essay as tribute to a man whose creative and rare talent I admire so much. I must confess, given the job that I now have, this essay was herculean. When one surveys the sociocultural history of Nigeria, and especially from ethnic and regional perspectives, like the South-West Yoruba people, one unmistakably will not fail to register the abiding presence of those—cultural propagators, promoters, producers and sustainers—whose critical efforts in long and unending and crosscutting trajectories have served as the touchstone to our cultural realities. Now this is a very crucial point for me. And I am gesturing towards the significance of globalization especially in the fragmentation and undermining cultural importance through the homogenization of all things. When we speak about the world becoming a “global village,” we are confronted with the immediate value of the question of whose village it is becoming. And I suspect we all have a sense of the answer to this question. Factor Africa’s colonial past into this calculation, and you begin to see the dangers ahead.

And yet, we have those who have become our culture warriors in the face of the threatening effacement of cultural values; those who insist that culture matters even given the deluge of global phenomena, from digital technologies to artificial intelligence. I have in mind cultural figures like Hubert Ogunde, Wole Soyinka, Duro Ladipo, Akinwunmi Isola, Adebayo Faleti, Wande Abimbola, Ifayemi Elebuibon, Tunde Kelani, Bobby Benson, Niyi Osundare, Kola Ogunmola, Lagbaja, Asa, Femi Osofisan, and so many others. Wendell Pierce, the American actor, insists that “The role of culture is that it’s the form through which we as a society reflect on who we are, where we’ve been, where we hope to be.”

I am celebrating, with a mixed emotion, the person and personality of Jimi Solanke who just recently went to be with the ancestors. It is a mixed emotion for me because while realizing his humongous contributions as a culture producer and sustainer, this celebration is coming too late in time. I have, most sadly, further deepen the Yoruba adage that “Lọ́jọ́ a bá kú là ń dère; èèyàn ò sunwọ̀n láàyè” (we are only celebrated in death; no one is worth anything alive). My consolation is that it is never too late to give honour to whom it is due. And Jimi Solanke—Baba Agba—deserves all the honour and accolades we can heap on him, beyond gushing rhetoric and mere words. For more than fifty years, since he joined the department of Dramatic Arts at the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Uncle Jimi had dedicated his entire active professional life to propagating the Yoruba culture and its various values for a modern age.

Jimi Solanke was an all-rounder—folklorist, actor, storyteller, poet and playwright. And he was consummate in all. His songs pack the punch of cultural denotation and connotation. They are didactic and deep, filled with the density of the Yoruba cultural heritage. From “Owuro L’ojo” and “Eni bi Eni” to “Bere Mo’Le” and “Ororo Ile,” Uncle Jimi’s baritone voice combines with the rhythmic melodies to carry serious cultural messages. Two things are fascinating about Baba Agba’s songs. Apart from the deep songs in Yoruba, there is a code-switching style from English to Yoruba and back, that give his songs a wider audience. I suspect that this is not just a ploy to gain more listeners but to reach across the generational divide between the old and the young with messages that often also transcend cultural boundaries. “Owuro L’ojo,” for instance, deploys Yorùbá linguistic and cultural terms to preach hard work and work values. The second thing is that he was a patriot who was concerned about the goodness of Nigeria. In “Ororo Ile,” he plays on the idea of ‘fatherland” and “a land flowing with milk and honey” to laud the possibilities in Nigeria.

His songs were stories that were entertaining and didactic. Baba Agba’s reputation was built around storytelling. Indeed, I think Donald Davis, the American storyteller and author, has Jimi Solanke in mind in describing himself: “Storytelling is not what I do for a living—it is how I do all that I do while I am living.” What more could be more significant than storytelling that weaves many elements of a people’s history into songs that gesture at so many potentials and directions? Humans are homo fabula—storytellers. But some have become adept at weaving stories into fabric of our collective existence. That is what Jimi Solanke did. From folklore to playwright, and from actor to singer, he embodies the persona of the cultural fabulist. I will put him side by side with the Greek Aeschylus. According to Robert McAfee Brown, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” But I think Uncle Jimi puts his connection to the cultural agenda even better: “If you lose the perspectives of your culture as an artist anywhere in the world and you lose the depths of your cultural perspectives – you can have nothing to sell.”

The intellectual and cultural maturation of Uncle Jimi Solanke is an amazing study in people-capital. From Orlando Julius, I. K. Dairo and Chris Ajilo, he learnt the rudiments of music; the Mbari group of Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, Ralph Opara, etc.—where, in his words, he became a “bigger boy”; the School of Drama at the University of Ibadan, with Jimi Johnson, Tunji Oyelana, Yomi Obileye, Bettie Okotie, and others as the first set of students under teachers like Geoffrey Axworthy as director, and Martin Banham, Joel Adedeji, Wole Soyinka (and the Olori Olokun theatre), and many significant others; and then to Ife to complete a professional formation under Ola Rotimi with drama (at the Olori Olokun theatre), Akin Euba with music, and Peggy Harper with dance. I had to go listen again to Uncle Jimi’s intro to Ralph Macdonald’s 1978 chartbuster, The Path (Ona La). Or sample the deep and mellifluous voice that sang “Barenijoye.”

It was as if orí deliberately directed him to Ife—to the mythological cradle of the Yorùbá race—for his multitalented grounding in the art forms. And it was a complete maturation that embedded him as a consummate artiste who was fit to carry the historic art of the Yorùbá storytellers and the burden of the Yoruba culture. And when the burden of disseminating the traditional heritage is hitched to the demand of getting the right audience to listen and take note, Baba Agba chose the strategy of narrating folktales to children, and we immediately begin to see the unfolding of an ideological function. Since children are the future, then it makes fundamental sense to reach them as the foundation of the sociocultural heritage we are trying to rescue. And it makes even more sense to reach them through the narration of the cultural imperatives and values through skillful and believable storytelling that not only entertain them in their own style, but also serves to keep the future about to be damaged by the unbridled offerings of digital technologies alive in the upbringing of these children. Through his famous programs, Storyland and African Stories, Baba Agba deployed what he called his “eternal tools”: folktales and folksongs to challenge a younger generation not to get lost in the cultural wasteland called globalization.

Jimi Solanke, Baba Agba, has gone to where the elders go. But the fight he joined and contributed to is still raging. Culture is still an endangered species in the rapidly unfolding global world. The youth care more about entertainment events on Instagram and YouTube than on cultural productions and values. Indeed, how many of Nigerian youths are familiar with Jimi Solanke and his cultural efforts? Or with other cultural propagators and producers like him? More fundamentally, what have values become in the age of the Gen Z? Many who belong in the age bracket of Baba Agba—and I must count myself in that generation too—are concerned about the degeneration in the value framework of the Nigerian society. Hardly can you get any moral exemplars again in a society where criminals and vagabonds have taken over the moral consciousness of the youth.

It is sad that figures like Uncle Jimi had to stand against the current of the moral and cultural decline occasioned by modernity. And yet, he did not give up, even given his octogenarian limitations. His passion and his noble agenda set him aside as one elder that the ancestors must take notice of when he arrives at the great beyond. And those of us still on this side of the divide—those of us who see the deep significance of the agenda he left behind, a commitment to the service of the Yoruba culture as a marker of our beingness in the world—cannot afford to abandon the task. It is too much to be set aside in the daily grind of our national existence. And the family is the starting point. From Aristotle to all the great philosophers, including those who are grounded in cultural frameworks, the family is everything; and a people’s culture grounds their humanity and relationship with others. It is the core of national unity that does not seem to have been foregrounded in our governance philosophy. In Uncle Olujimi Solanke, we have someone who tells us how to be a cultural traditionalist and a patriot.