In the interview, Jimi Solanke speaks on the global music scene vis-a-vis Nigerian youths’ seeming alienation from indigenous music and their cultural roots, the effects of Covid-19 on the entertainment industry, and the secrets of his agility and vibrancy even at 80.
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, spoke ahead of his birthday, which has set the Nigerian arts circuit agog with celebration, after a spectacular performance at a gathering of culture enthusiasts, literary and creative artists recently in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital.
The soiree, held at Tunde Odunlde Arts Connexions Gallery in the elitist Bodija district, was reminiscent of the Ibadan arts circuit in the 60s which was the hub of cultural activities and artistic talents featuring, among others, the likes of Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, John Pepper Clarke-Bekederemo, Demas Nwoko, Duro Ladipo, Yomi Ogunmola and their works.
In the interview, Mr Solanke spoke on trends in the global music scene vis- a -vis Nigerian youths’ seeming alienation from indigenous music and their cultural roots, effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the entertainment industry, as well an update on a creative and performing arts enhancement centre he is developing in Ipara, his home town in Ogun State.
Described by CNN as a ‘Master story teller’, 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, as he is fondly called, also shares the secrets of his agility and vibrancy even at fourscore.
Exactly what do you mean by your remark on stage a while ago that the Ibadan you met on this visit was different from the one you used to know?
Jimi Solanke: Since the 60s, Ibadan has been a very culturally, artistically-oriented city. Where the Lekan Salami Stadium is now was a location where we (artists) all ended up in the evenings, coming from all over the town to enjoy ourselves. When you are tired of that place, you can walk down and get to Keru’s hotel. Baba Keru on Ife road. Reverse, and you are at Ekotedo Iya Olobe, there is a bubbling spot there. Reverse again and you would touch West end where Mbari Club from which all of us grew up to know what the depth of cultural involvement is.
Go up, you will see the Obisesan Hall, Radio Nigeria, Cocoa Dome and Kingsway Paradise Club. In a corner of Ososami Road, there was a lady who had a nightclub where Rex Williams… no, not Rex Lawson, Rex Williams, another trumpeter, used to play. The Action Group hall was there. Young people were being trained how to play musical instruments, you know, in front of the Odeon Cinema. So, as I sneaked into town today, got here and saw it brimming as usual with people, people and people, after what I can call a somewhat culturally sterile interregnum. I saw that (Tunde) Odunlade is trying to bring back the good old days, doing that which was part of what developed people like me into what we have become…a kind of cultural and artistic renaissance.
So, what difference is there in the city in that span of time?
Jimi Solanke: The difference is clear: a majority of the people have been deculturised. They have become interested a lot more in western ways. In my culture, when you request medicine to relieve your leg pain, they will recommend a herb which may not be worth more than 50 kobos or at most N400. And when people like us, who go to consult these Babas, give them N5,000 instead of the N400, they go berserk, telling us they need no more than the N400 charged and wondering if we are stupid? You have to be explaining to them to keep the change because you know the medication will cure whatever ailment you may have and the Baba is not going to request from you any other thing after that. But the majority of the regular medicine, capsules… you use now have harmful side effects. Let’s be realistic. I am a Christian but I cannot because of that fact jettison the ways, religion and customs of my ancestors.
Does that explain why you still look very much like a 40 -year old at 80?
Jimi Solanke: To God be the glory. God is the secret. Again, when people have money, they spoil themselves. They just eat and eat rather carelessly. Once they have money in their pockets, the idea in their mind is ‘let us eat one of those delicious and expensive delicacies, and they will blow about N27, 000 at a go! But the stuff they consume oftentimes may be unhealthy or lack necessary nutrients that can promote their longevity. So, they just pack a lot of dangerous stuff into their systems trying to prove that they have money. That way, the majority of us eat ourselves to death. What’s wrong with eating little or denying ourselves food? That way, we relieve the body of burden. Even our Lord, Jesus Christ, went on 40 days and 40 nights fasting.
You mean you fast?
Jimi Solanke: I do a lot of fasting.
How does it help?
Jimi Solanke: This body we carry around is a machine. If you love to eat too much and feed it indiscriminately because you have money, the machine soon gets overworked and might just give up. Man does not come to this life because of ponmo and Amala, not just for bread. Do you understand what I’m saying? I’m choosy about what goes into my stomach. My diet essentially consists of green vegetables, ewedu especially. I drink ewedu like water and I do not eat any meat but fish. I hate maalu (beef). I don’t eat it at all. Even my wife, who loves ponmo, once in a while puts it on my plate.
But when I finish eating, she will still come and pick the ponmo from my plate. I eat fruits, nuts, palm, and epa (groundnuts). Since days back, if two handfuls of epa get inside of me, I will live for the next two days. I never feel hungry. It’s all in the mind. The state of mind is also very important. I live a contented life. Would you believe I buy epa just to soak garri and a piece of sugar to have a meal, and I will be so contented and will sleep fine? I told my wife I didn’t want to be a landlord in my life. Now it happens that we are leaving a whole house in Ife and coming home to Ipara to build a cultural centre and to also live there.
Jimi Solanke: Because I believe I have something that I should do that I’ve not done.
And what could that be?
Jimi Solanke: I can’t even pinpoint it. It’s something between me and my God and I will do it before I leave this earth. I guess that’s why I’m still alive.
Chief Ebenezer Obey and yourself are contemporaries among the pioneers of modern African music, alongside Tunji Oyelana, King Sunny Ade Haruna Ishola and Sikiru Ayinde. What do you make of the fortunes of your various genres – Apala, Fuji, Juju and folk music in contemporary musical context?
Jimi Solanke: A pity majority of our children don’t have the eyes or ears to appreciate our culture. 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 us – US, UK and all of that. I am pained. When, as a Yoruba man, you crave or romance an alien culture for relevance, you are no more than an empty bag, cultureless, with no origin and so you end up pained and you will suffer.
That’s because they have nothing original to offer or that can compete with what you have in terms of creativity and uniqueness. What do they want to do there that will be better than yours? Talking of competitiveness, the Yoruba culture is number one in the whole of Africa. It will be good for you to propagate this Yoruba cultural heritage because, in Brazil, people are studying Yoruba, in America, about 56 or 64 universities are teaching Yoruba, in Cuba, all over the world.
Aren’t you afraid for the future of indigenous music and civilization with the younger generation’s apparent disinterest in them and preference for pop culture?
Jimi Solanke: The Hausa do say: “Serkin Goma, Zamani Goma,” which in Yoruba translates: “Oba mewa, igba mewa”. That’s the way I see the matter. I’ve lived up to nearly eighty, I’ve seen different kinds of music evolve and last for so long and at the end of the day, they fade away or die. These hip-hop musicians you speak of, I clap for them. Whatever lyrics they put into their songs, it’s their time now. I’ve seen it before they too will evolve and realism will dawn that everything follows a pattern. That is: rise and fall.
What’s the update on your novel project at Ipara? Are we having an academy or theatre village there Like Baba Hubert Ogunde’s Film Village in Ososa?
Jimi Solanke: Yes, Ibudo Asa, Ipara, is a centre for creative and performing arts enhancement. Enhancement in the sense that if you’re a graduate and you are still looking for how to step in and stamp your feet on the ground of performances, come, you will get your skills enhanced. We will through a practical approach take you through the rudiments of stage presence, voice mastery, acting and total theatre experience for continuity of live stage performance.
Live theatre because live theatre is all I was trained for as a young man who went into thespianism. Maybe that’s why I’m a bit more of a dramatic person even when I sing. I act everything I sing and all that. Live theatre is what I believe in most. We are not building a big academy as such, but we will be having a lot of people coming for workshops on different areas of thespian life. Everything is involved including music because music is part of theatre.
So, what stage is the project now?
Jimi Solanke: Well, we have put up a structure in place with rooms each having its own toilet, the ceiling’s done and the whole place wired by an electrician, Now, I have a very spacious living room about two times the size of this (Tunde Odunlade Arts Connexions Gallery’s lounge where the interview was conducted). My hall contains at least 50-60 people. We have hosted a lot of artists and visitors already. We have done book readings, and that is still testing, testing the microphone (laughs). It is the outside hall, the stage, and the sitting area that we are facing now.
Which exactly is your forte or favourite mode of artistic expression – music, acting or storytelling?
Jimi Solanke: Excuse me, sir, when you are a thespian, it means you are an actor, a singer, a dancer, you are everything that equals performance. When I stand before an audience and tell stories, I’m acting. Perhaps, that’s why a lot of people love me telling stories, because I act, innovate and mimic the sound of a chicken, that of a lion, and also give the tortoise a voice. It’s all part of thespianism, it’s all part of acting, it’s all part of playing a role.
But there must be one that makes your heart beat in a special way.
Jimi Solanke: I tell you, there’s no favourite, no distinction up till now. Music, acting, everything are all under the same umbrella. As far as I am concerned, maybe that’s the reason why God has been keeping me, to live my destiny. I sing for the sake of thespianism and not for money or anybody. It’s like fulfilling a calling or being inspired primarily to delight and add value to humanity, you know, like: “Eleyi o ko sita (Lo, sing this for the world), not like the “Onitemi o, Abiola ti de, o de towotowo, owo lo n na” lyrics of the crowd of commercial musicians.
In all the plays I’ve acted in, nobody can fault any movement or any tonal quality of my delivery as an actor. My good Lord has decreed it that this man is an actor. He chose me because He was looking for who would act well. You know, honest acting, true acting, acting for the sake of acting, it’s a spiritual thing, I believe. Acting is not to show off, acting is going there to build a role from the sole of your feet to the tip of the hair on your head to everything on your fingernails.
How about your favourite song?
Jimi Solanke: All my songs are very much my favourites. You cannot openly say in front of all your children that this one is your favourite. As I was performing out there tonight and, as you know, my band is not even complete here. Thank God I brought one person along. We couldn’t get to play ‘Osupa’, not even ‘Ojoje’, simply because we didn’t have sequence rehearsed band to accompany it. I’ve been having hits since the days of ‘Eje ka jo’ in the 60s, you have ‘Onile Gogoro’, even right now, I am in the studio.
Oh yeah, so what should we expect?
Jimi Solanke: Ten tracks, ten tracks of fresh, delightful music and I am not playing exclusively with the old approach, but with a blend of the younger generation’s style. (plays back a recording of three tracks from the demo album). What do you think of it?
Jimi Solanke: We are trying to subtly infuse into their (young ones) entertainment our tradition. While we let them dance the way they know how to do it, we send in the message so it can sink when they hear it and say: “Ah, is that not that Baba?” We want to start from there to reach every depth and fibre of their being. I’m even going back into animating all the old stories with this same voice that their parents used to hear back in the years. We must try our best artistically, and intensively to make sure that we do not lose these children to alien cultures.
How have you been coping with the Covid-19 pandemic, general insecurity and cash crunch being experienced in the country?
Jimi Solanke: I decided to start my centre just before 2000 and things were fine then, we had jobs here, engagements there, bookings all over, and so, we started the foundation, construction and all that. We moved to the lintel stage and needed four blocks more to give us room space. We had not even done the ceiling, but we had bought a lot of things that we needed to build because then, we were buoyant. We still had money. It was exciting and I was just spending all my savings, went to POS to collect money to buy building materials. But that was where the Covid lockdown met me. By the time we came out of lockdown, we just had to manage to try and finish up some sections including painting the exterior and completing the rest of the structure.
So, in a way, the Covid thing helped, because I would have used the money for other purposes. But when lockdown came, I started feeling it that, ah, this is a ‘be careful case oh’ (laughs), because we were just spending the money we had saved. So, I locked up the place and went back to Ife with my wife, because I spent all the money I made from everywhere and the income was no longer flowing in as before. So, yes, it affected all of us because there were no more bookings, no programme, nothing because they said no crowd must gather, nobody must move one arm’s length. Till now, it has not been easy even with the majority of big bands. But, as I told people “Lala to lo s’oke, o n bo ni le ni.” Lala is a shout like a rising yeeeeeeee cry. The noise will definitely and ultimately subside and get to a point where people will begin to mutter Uhn, uhn, Ahn Ahn. So that’s all about this Covid. For me, however, everything that happens in my life and surrounding, I believe was meant to be. We must still be grateful to God for everything because some are not so lucky to still be alive, some of my colleagues died…
Killed by the disease…?
Jimi Solanke: No, …because they could not maintain their lifestyle. Now with the insecurity in the land, one expects that our rulers from the bottom to the very top of the hierarchy should be able to put it down decisively. How can Abuja to Kaduna be unmotorable, with such money put into governors’ pockets as security funds every month, every year? And to think that the military is enjoying the best of times now. What with a lot of money they are being given, unless they want to deny that the humongous money claimed to have been given to them was false.
Let’s be realistic, we are playing games with one another and they have to stop it. Some people in this country are frivolously toying with the fate of millions of Nigerians. My grandchildren, beautiful, intelligent young persons who I love so much, must not suffer from their stupidity. They have killed all that we take for granted, which gives us joy and happiness. They had done that with themselves a long time ago, they have spread it into the whole nation, killing all the universities, killing all educational facilities, knocking everything out, all of us are just going to remain an Almajiri now, which is terrible. That’s why we have to stop them. We have to stop all this. If they have no interest in getting things to be better than amassing more money to the ones they have stolen, they should not disturb and destroy us. Look at the ministers, look at all the appointments, look at everything and you will see that they have won. They are chopping Nigeria’s money. Let them be contented with that and let us be. We have resources minus oil money, minus other money, to turn our lives around positively in our part of the country. We’re tired of all this rubbish,
Much more than our own broadcast media and networks, the BBC seems to be doing more for African cultures and languages with its pervasive indigenous content and programming – now we have BBC Yoruba, BBC Hausa, BBC pidgin all exhaustively covering and beaming news and other interesting aspects of the life of Nigeria and its people to millions across not just the country, but the continent, especially via its social media platforms. Apart from the possibility of BBC’s popularity rating and advert income overtaking these local stations, is the peculiar development healthy for our cultural and national development? Also, is the foreign broadcasting giant’s success not an indictment of African broadcasters’ lack of patriotism and initiative to reverse the much-criticized lopsided global information order? What exactly is their handicap? Three-in-one question there for you.
Jimi Solanke: When you have a media group paid by the government not doing what is right and others not owned by the government being the ones doing that you would put money on, there’s nothing more honourable than for you to just lock up your studio. That is the kind of situation we have in Nigeria. When otherwise upright media want to speak or do what is right and look right and left and see that if they should do so, they might have ‘Dongaris’ at their offices’ doorsteps the next day or having them shut, they will not. Instead, they too will join the follow, follow the band. Look at NTA? What can they do? You see, we have been warned. We have been tortured in this space called Nigeria not to know or talk about our culture. That is why the government or the rulers chopped off the teaching of history out of our school curriculum. I’m not afraid of anybody. I am eighty years old. I have grandchildren and the truth is better told. You can’t afford to keep playing with the lives of people.
Don’t you think media promoters and operators themselves have a share in the blame?
Jimi Solanke: Excuse me with this your mindset and attitude of vision and mission. Do you want to know why they didn’t and couldn’t do it? You go and set up a station where you want to do it and see what will happen.