interviewBy Prisca Sam-Duru
Legendary playwright, actor, poet and singer, Olujimi Adeboye Solanke, famously known as Uncle Jimi, is an icon to reckon with in the global arts and culture scene. A native of Ipara Remo, Remo North of Ogun State, Solanke was born on July 4, 1942. Famed for the series “Storyland”, one of the folk storytelling traditions he promoted during his career on the screen, Uncle Jimi’s decades of storytelling on Nigerian television as well as his involvement in other art genres undoubtedly earned him an enviable position in the arts/culture community. Vanguard’s Arts & Reviews encountered him at Freedom Park, Lagos where he shared how his career began, his thoughts on the Nigerian arts and other topical issues:
You’re multitalented. How did your career in music and theatre begin?
I started writing songs that were recorded by ‘big bands’ before I left Odogbolu Grammar School in Ijebu Province not too far from Ikenne, those days. Songs such as, ‘Oro mare ara dun gbo… /won pe yen lo nile gogoro’ and ‘Ore titan/ Ore otito osi mo’ and Roy Chicago recorded it. Also at the time, I was already leading a band in the school. But when I finished school and went to Ibadan, since there were many bands around my area, I started singing with them until I rose to singing with Chris Ajilo at Gangan Nightclub. That’s how I started because I refused to go to work just to become a printing press engineer.
Why did you reject the printing press job?
I refused it because all my hands would be dirty. And the next morning, if I go to work, imagine somebody who left the nightclub about 5:30 a.m. and has to be at work at about 7:30 a.m., the spate of time between that is too short, so I would still be sleeping.
And I would be dreaming that if I dare go on that horse ladder, somebody who is supposed to be taking care of things like this, I would fall. And I would fall with my head shattered. I don’t like my hands to be dirty, with grease and all that. That’s how I sneaked off Caxton Press. And my uncle gave me the opportunity to be myself when he said ‘if you know you’re not going to be going to work, leave my house.’
He was the representative of Western Region in London. So, I left his house and I quickly went to a place where I was staying with some bandsmen and then became so free in Ibadan for artworks. That’s how I entered Mbari in Ibadan and I started working with Wole Soyinka, Ralph Opara, Yemi Lijadu, Chris Okigbo and Demas Nwoko. The Mbari Group was very strong and they inspired me into poetry readings, folk singing and drama.
In 1963, they started the school of drama. So, we all applied and I was admitted to the University of Ibadan School of Drama which was the first school of drama in Africa. And they wanted us to stay but I was already a singer. So, I just went professional as an actor then. I was there for another three years with the acting company. Then I went to Ife in 1969.
Since I’ve learnt how to dance, act and sing, I became Assistant Director to three Directors – Peggy Harper (dance), Akin Euba (Music), Ola Rotimi (Drama). So, I worked at Ori Olokun strongly in Ife until we did a show and we were taken to Benin. And Ogbemudia (former military governor of old Bendel State) said, ‘you can’t take our Oba back) because I played Ovonramwen Nogbaisi. And Ogbemudia said ‘this is our Oba. He’s not going to Ife with you anymore.’ So, I stayed as Senior Cultural Officer at the Midwest Arts Council, setting up the dance, music and drama section.
How did you come about children’s programs?
The very first one, when I came back from the US, was Family Scene on LTV 8. NTA invited me to a children’s program workshop at the Jos Film School in Jos.
After several deliberations, we came up with Storyland, where we would be telling stories and there would be insertions of artistic works by artists, me and my guitar and all that. It became very popular and ran for about six or seven years. And when they had a problem of recording me, a friend of mine who owned a television station, Galaxy, said instead of me going to Lagos to record, he would be coming to meet me in Ife. So, I recorded series of Family Reflections which was what it was called. After that, I designed the one for AIT, African Stories on AIT.
During your early days, you recorded a track, Baba Agba and just recently, you featured in a track, Ife Baba Agba on Poskii’s Moods Extracted, are both tracks saying the same thing?
I recorded Baba Agba song in 1986. When we were doing dance drama, I wrote a song for Peggy Harper in a dance drama, Wura Kapali. And after a long time, I saw people using that song. So, when I came back from the US and joined them again at the department when Professor Soyinka said that I should stay, that song, the tune, the body, everything, some people, I don’t want to mention names now – said they want to use it in drama.
So, I just got home one evening, the song was full in my mind – and I changed just one or two words. And the song became a hit. And so, they were calling me Baba Agba till now, when I drive past in Ife. So, I’ve been Baba Agba even when I was just 40. So, for Poskii to now say Ife Baba Agba, which wraps it and I said, well, let’s see.
With your experience in music, what’s your view about today’s songs?
In the first place, the reason I even allowed the collaboration with Poskii was because all the materials on his album are decent. They are decent such that you want to be part of it. There are so many albums or tracks or songwriting these days that as a father and grandfather, you would hear that are so disturbing and you will ask ‘What is this?
I don’t want to mention anyone. I was listening to one and it was on a campus. What I was hearing was disturbing my ears. It’s horrible. There is no songwriting anymore. They just take one phrase and repeat it for the next 10 minutes. Songs do not come from any magical source.
You can talk about issues happening or something that has happened to you or an experience that you will want to share. For instance, Ololufe/ Mafimi sile/ Oro ija kekere yen o/ je ka te te pari ija yi/ ki awa ko le gbadun oro ife (meaning Dear Lover/ Don’t leave me/ Let us settle our little misunderstanding / so we can enjoy our love life,” is a meaningful love song. There must be a reason why you are writing a song. You don’t just enter the studio and make noise like a bus conductor.
Do you blame the media for the kind of music they air?
Definitely, you see, majority of the people working in our media now, I don’t know how that has helped them, as long as you put ‘brown envelope’ in their hands, whether you want them to say red is black or green is blue, they would go to that extent to satisfy you. That is not productive media anymore. That is jeun-jeun media.
Nowadays, media unleash rubbish on the populace. Are they themselves drunk or something? Don’t they listen to it before they air it? There are some things that should not be broadcast; NTBBB. You must know that law. Part of the blame should be on the media practitioners.
Let’s know more about your training Centre
It’s Centre for Creative and Performing Arts Enhancement, Ipara Remo. I’m building it. I have 10 hectares of land where the project is ongoing. The idea of the Centre was conceived as a skills-oriented school for performing arts where an artist can be well-developed.
We are ready to help talented individuals develop their talents because maybe give me 20 years, I would be gone. We want to start where we can pass it on, give back to some people because I notice that there are different kinds of acting schools, film schools and colleges. And who teaches them?
You see, that is why I don’t act anymore because the majority of the people who act today just paint their faces and go to location as actors. You must be dedicated to the character you are playing. Actors today speak from their chest and their nasal compartment. I cannot act with such people. When I make live plays enlivened in Ipara that is when you will see me on stage. Majority don’t give words its normal weight and colour. They don’t know how to put words to use. I am saying it because I am an actor-teacher.”
How would you rate Nigerian arts now?
It is when art is attracting good money that we are getting less than the best from the artistes. All our artistes now earn millions. We were just discussing it. Somebody said, ‘my friend when we were carrying Bolekaja to carry instruments all over the place, they were giving us paltry sum. Now, all you need do is just your CD and you are into a millionaire’s house, they give you five million and they give you another two million for transportation for just singing. So, whoever is in the arts now, don’t stop because the doors are open now. Between December and now, I’ve done about N1 million to N1.5 million job for singing for 30 minutes because I’m consistent. Some people already gave up. Because I’m consistent, now, they are paying me the amount they should pay me. So, now is when good artistes must polish their acts.