In our estimation, a huge percentage of his fans are much younger than him, on account of his over four-decade dalliance with passionate entrenchment of the socio-cultural construction of the African child through folkloric storytelling; thus we call him Uncle Jimi. But Olujimi Adeboye Solanke is more than a master storyteller: he’s a dramatist, poet, folk singer, playwright, visual artist, culture educator and writer.
He was in the first set of students admitted in 1963, into – in his own words – “the first School of Drama in Africa”… at the University of Ibadan. So it was easy to appreciate his dexterity and maverick career when you consider his sojourn with the first and second generations of Africa’s major scholar-playwright-dramatists: Professors Wole Soyinka, Ola Rotimi, Femi Osofisan, Zulu Sofola, Akin Euba, and others.
Even long before Ibadan, Solanke was a doughty music composer as a student of a secondary school near Ikenne. He revealed that one of Roy Chicago’s classics, “Oro ma re ara adugbo…” (Onile Gogoro) was actually composed by his precocious teenage self.
Few years later, he was jamming with Chris Ajilo (who died on February 20, 2021 at 91) at a nightclub in Ibadan. Charmed life!
After school, lured by the migrant lives of committed artistes, he found himself in the company of Soyinka, Ayo Lijadu, Demas Nwoko…at the Mbari ‘club’ around 1961. And Theatre became his life.
In Ibadan, after graduating with a drama certificate in 1966, he was a staple in Soyinka’s plays, including in the epochal Death and the King’s Horseman. He was also a part of Nigeria’s first homegrown filmic adaptation, Kongi’s Harvest by Ossie Davis and Francis Oladele, in 1970.
With fiery-eyed devotion to the stage, Solanke (79 on July 4, 2021) is so enraptured with the performing arts that his trajectory, after leaving UI, has taken him to the University of Ìfé (from 1969) as an associate fellow of the Institute of Cultural Studies led by Ola Rotimi; to leading roles in Rotimi’s plays: Kurunmi, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, The Gods Are Not to Blame, etc. In fact, he was ‘detained’ in Benin City of the 1970s by then military administrator of Mid-Western region, Brigadier Samuel Ogbemudia (who died March 9, 2017), after a bewildering performance as Oba Nogbaisi in Rotimi’s tragic historical play, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi.
He spent the next three years setting up the drama, dance and music sections of the new Midwest Region’s Arts Council.
And that was just the beginning of a remarkable career. He surged through to the heights of being the Dance Director at FESTAC 77; to travelling to the US performing in traditional African dresses with his group, The Africa Review; to featuring in plays by Femi Osofisan (Chattering and the Song – published 1977), and other drama dons.
Yet Jimi Solanke would later, after his return from the US in 1986, be famous as a folk singer and an inventive creator of several popular children’s series on the burgeoning television stations of the 70s and 80s.
He created, designed and/or presented these glorious kids’ stuff: Children’s Scene (on WNTV, the precursor of NTA, Ibadan), Family Scene on Lagos Television (LTV, 80s); Storyland (the epic that ran for about seven years on NTA network), and African Stories on Africa International Television (AIT).
His musical compositions, which often traverse many of his other dramatic offerings, have been captured in few albums: Eje Ka Jo, In The Beginning, Ase, Storyteller, America Has Got Magic, Orin Orisa, Multiplicity of Praise, Hidden Gold and Once Upon a Time.
Today, after six decades of devotion to dramaturgy, the grandee of popular theatre and grassroot music has retired to his hometown, Ipara-Remo (Ogun State); not as a mere recluse bemoaning ancient glitters, but a weaving, thriving and evolving master builder and ‘harnesser’ of budding talents. He is building his pet project, Centre for Creative and Performing Arts Enhancement on a serene 10-hectare land, with hope and thirst for sustaining a legacy that will outlive him and his peers. Typical of an anchorage for countless thespians.
(Culled from FAJ’s Reflections: Anthology of Thoughts on Nigerian Movie Industry – 2021)
Today, July 4, the man with the world acclaimed “Uncle Jimi” moniker is four-score years mature! Happy 80th birthday, sir.