At 80, Nigerian folklore legend, Jimi Adeboye Solanke, no doubt, has led a very useful life devoted to the arts. The iconic artist, who made a name for himself as a versatile dramatist, musician and folklorist in a career spanning the 50s to the present, has remained faithful to his art.
Recognised by many over generations, thanks to his unique style of reciting folktales with his booming golden voice backed up with guitars, singing in different tones, using passionate gesticulations and mimicry to drive the message home to his young and not so young listeners.
His epic performances at the Western Nigeria Television (WNTV), Ibadan in the 1960s; to his stunning presentations and amazing stagecraft in Senegal at the World Festival of Negro Arts and Algeria for the Pan–African Cultural Festival in the 1970s attest to his hot passion and theatrical brilliance.
Jimi Solanke was born July 4, 1942, in Lagos but he hails from Ipara Remo. His foray into musical entertainment blossomed while he was a student at the Odogbolu Grammar School, Remo in Ogun State. He was one of the first sets of graduands of the School of Drama, University of Ibadan.
The school later became the Department of Theatre Arts. Solanke joined the Department of Dramatic Arts, at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University OAU) in 1969 as an associate fellow of the Institute of Cultural Studies.
After graduation, Solanke moved to the United States, where he created a drama group called The Africa Review, focusing on African culture. Members of this group usually put on African clothing, specifically Yoruba costumes, they performed in black African schools. Solanke established himself in Los Angeles and California where his storytelling career began.
In 1986, he returned to Nigeria with three members of the African Review group to work with the Nigerian Television Authority.
Together with his friends, he formed a band, Koroba. They turned their steel buckets into musical instruments to perform sundry folk songs. He wrote songs like Onilegogoro, Ore Titan, Na Today You Come, Khaki No Be Leather while in secondary school for the then Highlife music Legend Roy Akintola Chicago. He often sneaked to Abalabi Nite Club at Olorunsogo in Lagos to sing with Roy Chicago’s Band.
He also featured in the band of other great Highlife veterans like Eddy Okonta and Chris Ajilo.
His reputation earned him the lead role in most of Ola Balogun’s films; he was part of the team that made the film, Kongi’s Harvest, by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.
He played lead roles in Death and the King’s Horseman, Kurunmi, Chattering and the Song, Kongi’s Harvest, Ovoramwen Nogbaisi, The Divorce, and many more.
He also starred in several shows on Nigerian Television (NTA) starting from the 1960s to date, including The Bar Beach Show, For Better for Worse, Village Headmaster, Family Scene on Lagos Television (LTV), Children’s Half Hour, Storyland, African Stories on (AIT), Sango – The movie and many others.
Solanke also composed Eje ka jo, Jenrokan, Na today you come and he was the lead voice in Ralph MacDonald’s The Path recorded in New York in 1977 and a consultant for Theatre for Development, UNICEF, UNFPA, Women and Children’s Health.
Described by CNN as a ‘Master storyteller,’ the artist has harsh words for the nation’s rulers and political class whom he accuses of ‘killing’ the creative industry like other sectors with their indifference, corruption, lack of vision and innovative policies that could help in developing it.
Uncle Jimi, a product of mentorship from the hands of master artists such as the venerable writers, Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi; the musicologist Akin Euba, dancer Peggy Harper, theatre theoretician Dapo Adelugba, and scenologist, Demas Nwoko; he has involved himself in the mentoring of younger musicians in folklore and jazz, as a way of sustaining the art. The UNILAG Mentorship Programme was, in fact, conceived and birthed by the JSL for him as a way of keeping the spirit alive.
Referred to as the ‘Baba Agba,’ culture purist and African culture ambassador extraordinaire, Solanke believes majority of Nigerian children don’t have their eyes or ears to appreciate the country’s culture. He is angered that they don’t have the patience to learn anything about African traditions. All they do now is give themselves, free of charge, to foreign climes and peoples culturally different from Africa.