June 14, 2024

Enchanting moments with Jimi Solanke

  • April 21, 2024
  • 17 min read
Enchanting moments with Jimi Solanke

By Akin Orebiyii

IT was the morning of December 26, 1983 at the shooting of Blues for a Prodigal, a film by Prof. Wole Soyinka. The dry, mild harmattan morning was filled with dust and haze. The location was the Rotunda, a small bar, tidily tucked in at the back corner of the vast Oduduwa Hall complex of the University of Ife (as it was known then). The unique architectural feature of the Rotunda was its round and almost squat-like design with a door and several large, similarly round windows which were almost the size (but not the regular rectangular shape) of French windows. It was a fitting rendezvous between two thugs (emissaries of a highly-placed politician) and an undergraduate who chooses to dine with the devil.

As we sat down waiting that morning, we watched the film’s production crew, led by ace cinematographer, Bankole Bello and his crew, set up their equipment. The late Steve Awana from Lagos was in charge of continuity. Presently, the writer and director of the movie, Soyinka arrived. In tow was his secretary whom we commonly called Francis. He was a wizard with the typewriter and cyclostyling machine. The personal computer was still in its embryo, undergoing pregnancy tests then.

Apart from a few professional actors and technical practitioners from outside Ife with some members of the University Theatre, the rest of us in the Rotunda were students of the Department of Dramatic Arts of which Professor Soyinka headed at that time. Somehow someone had spread the word, just before Christmas break, to many of us students present that morning that Prof would be conducting an audition for a movie. So we did not go home for Christmas but came to the Rotunda with much expectation. We soon learnt that the audition and casting for the movie had been done and the shooting had started a few weeks earlier at locations outside the campus at Ife, and even as far as the beautiful and serene Takwa Bay, an islet off the Lagos Harbour.

For this particular scene and a few others at the Rotunda, a few persons were needed as bar-room patrons – a crowd scene kind of. It was not therefore a fresh audition for roles as such. Having learnt this, we still decided to stay back, contented to be part of the bar-room crowd. After all, being a passer-by or waka-pass (as commonly called in Nollywood), in a Soyinka film would be a huge privilege on its own.

In the bar-room scene, if my memory does not fail me, two political thugs (Prof christened them Enforcers) are billed to have a meeting with a young undergraduate who is paid to carry out an assignment for a politician. The undergraduate seems to be reluctant to do the job.

By mid-morning, Mr. Bello, the director of photography, and his crew were ready. But the rehearsal could not go on. The person playing the undergraduate, the movie’s lead role and who was central to the shooting that day, Felix Okolo, was not on set. No one knew where he was. But it appeared he had not returned from the Christmas holiday. The now-ubiquitous mobile phone was still nearly a distant two decades away then. So there was no ready means of calling or knowing where Felix was.

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Baba Agba, Jimi Solanke

The director paced the floor for a few moments, thinking, and then decided on the next line of action. He asked that a stand-by be found for Felix so the rehearsal could go on while still waiting for Felix’s arrival. A quick search round the room for Felix’s look-alike… and Prof spotted me. I was handed a copy of the script. Moments later I was sitting directly opposite the much-storied Jimi Solanke (Enforcer 1) and his ally-in-crime, Jimmy Johnson (Enforcer 2) who was at that time a television star in Lagos. I felt small.

Jimi Solanke was already quite known then within and beyond the arts world. By the time we arrived Ife as undergraduates in 1980, he was not there. But his name and fame had travelled well ahead of him. We were regaled with his exploits at Ori Olokun Theatre under Prof. Ola Rotimi. Before then, he had cut his teeth in the early 1960s at the Mbari Club in Ibadan which paraded path-finders like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Demas Nwoko, Chris Okigbo, Mabel Segun, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke and subsequently at Orisun Theatre along with the likes of Segun Olusola, Ralph Opara, Segun Sofowote, Yomi Obileye and Tunji Oyelana. He later went to the School of Drama at the University of Ibadan where he had formal training in acting, music and dance. He joined Ori Olokun Theatre under the Institute of African Studies of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in the early 1970s. The theatre then was in town, off-campus, at Arubiidi in Ile-Ife. There, he worked and got further training under Prof. Ola Rotimi (acting), Prof. Akin Euba (music) and Peggy Harper (dance).

With Ori Olokun, he had many glorious nights when he lit up the stage and the spark in many a heart. One of such was at the command performance of Ola Rotimi’s Ovonramwen Nogbaisi in Benin in 1972. The story rang through the campus of how deeply absorbed Jimi Solanke was into the role of Oba Ovonramwen that many in the audience were moved to tears. So enthralled were the guests that the governor of the Mid-Western State, Brigadier-General Samuel Ogbemudia, at the instance of the Oba of Benin, did not allow him to return to Ife with the troupe. By military fiat, he was appointed Senior Cultural Officer in the state’s Mid-West Arts’ Council where he worked for about four years.

He left for the University of Ibadan in 1976 to join the activities at the opening of the National Theatre in preparations for the 2nd World Black Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77). At FESTAC, he played several roles. He acted in Nigeria’s main drama feature, Langbodo, Wale Ogunyemi’s adaptation of D. O. Fagunwa’s epic, Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole, playing the lead role, Young Akara-Ogun. The play was directed by Dapo Adelugba. He also had solo vocal performances under Akin Euba’s direction while he was Assistant Director, Dance to Peggy Harper.

After the festival, he took off to the United States. It was as if he was being awaited. Moments after his arrival in New York, through a phone call, he got his first job. Two days later, he took part in the recording of The Path, a song by Hugh Masekela which also featured Miriam Makeba, Groover Washington and George Benson. It was a big hit which set him on the path of more successful hits. He soon moved to Los Angeles where he started a series of school shows which he called Africa Revue, a feast of songs, story-telling and drama sketches – similar to what he was doing at Orisun in Soyinka’s Before the Blackout. This was the precursor of his story-telling and songs programme on several Nigerian television stations.

He returned to Nigeria in 1982 to the University of Ife Theatre at the Institute of African Studies. I recall seeing him in a few plays. He played the lead role in Kole Omotoso’s Equitorial Trials in 1982. Early in 1983 he took one of the major characters in the premiere of Wole Soyinka’s Requiem for a Futurologist. He also took part in Etika Revo Wetin? – a satirical musical production also by Soyinka on the rather concerning state of things in Nigeria at that time. It was released ahead of the August 1983 General Elections.

On a couple of times in 1982, at the invitation of the director, Iyabo Folayan, Jimi Solanke came to the Pit Theatre to see our rehearsals of Fate of a Cockroach by the Egyptian playwright, Tewfik Al-Hakim. The present writer played the lead role, the King, while Sharon Hamlet (daughter of the Carribean lecturer, Prof. Hamlet of the Literature in English Department) was the Queen, with Joke Muyiwa as Um Attiyah, Okey Okoesime as the Savant and Tunde Oduwole as the Priest. Jimi Solanke offered some vital suggestions for improvement. I benefitted from his advice on voice modulation, enunciation of words as well as the use of appropriate mobile eye and facial movements towards achieving optimal theatrical effect.

Now back to the set of Blues for a Prodigal. The rehearsal with Jimi Solanke and Jimmy Johnson went on till break-time, but Felix did not show up. After break, a few short scenes where Felix did not feature were rehearsed and shot. We continued the rehearsal all day without Felix showing up.

The next morning, Prof asked me to see him. He explained that since no one knew when Felix would come and we could not afford to lose any more day because of the cost of production, he had decided to go ahead with the shooting. He had therefore re-written a few new scenes. This was easy, he said, since he was writing daily as the shooting went along. To my utter amazement, the master craftsman had overnight created another character, a younger brother to Felix, and transferred most of the lines I rehearsed the previous day to the new character whom he named Sope. He gave the script which he had typed himself to his secretary, Francis, who quickly had copies ready for cast and crew.

After rehearsing several times, and seeing I had mastered the role and the lines, the director called for a recording:

“Silence! Bar-room noise! Camera rolling, sound, lights…”

Just as we were about to begin shooting the scene, Felix Okolo walked in.

“Cut! Cut! Cut!”, the director bawled.

You would think this was in itself a scene from a play. And silence reigned all over the Rotunda… All eyes were on Felix… and then shifted from Felix to Prof and from Prof to Felix… not knowing what next to do… But Prof wasted no time. He said that it would be unfair to ask me to go back and join the bar-room audience after nearly two days of rehearsal. He insisted on the new arrangement: that I would play the new character and he promised to make necessary adjustments in all parts of the script to accommodate the new role. He asked Francis to give Felix a copy of the new script for him to study.

This was how the illustrious professor, for whom the Nobel Prize was still three years away, graciously created a character for little me. He gave me a role in his movie and also ensured I was paid at that time a whooping N250. Before then in all the previous roles I had featured on stage and television, I had never been paid more than N25 for any of the performances. But in the twinkling of an eye, on the set of Blues for a Prodigal, I was transported, far beyond my imagination, from the crowd scene to playing a supportive role in the movie. I was on top of the moon. Several years later as I asked him to autograph my copy of his new collection of poems, Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known, at the National Theatre in Lagos, I tried to remind Prof of how he gave me a role in Blues…, he looked at me with a blank expression on his face. The Nobel laurate could not remember. For him, what I cherish till this day belongs to a time long gone, a brief but forgotten and faraway scene in one epic drama of several lives rolled into one.

But, Jimi Solanke’s bark jerks me back to the moment. All eyes and lights are riveted on us in that corner of the Rotunda. His threatening trademark booming baritone and his bulging eyeballs accentuated by a scar above one of the eyelids fill me with terror. His gaze is terrifying… holding me exactly where the director wants him to. The tormentor-in-chief is barking and asking after my brother. His companion is also not relenting. They are bent on cowering me into revealing my brother’s whereabouts.

The effect is almost stupefying. It seems the director and everyone on set are satisfied with the effect and enjoying the moment. I stutter my words nervously… as I am meant to anyway. I am sweating and suffering from the enforcers’ threat and the heat of the camera’s lights. My assailants are unrelenting until I can bear it no more. The scene ends in a pandemonium with me suddenly rising and turning the table, drinks, ash-tray and all against the two enforcers as I bolt for the door. But Enforcer 2 stands in the way and makes to grab my shirt. I turn and the next moment I fly out the nearby french window, evading my two tormentors. And they come after me…with my footsteps whipping the harmattan dust up their faces.

Later, Felix (I still can’t remember his name in the film) with his girlfriend, Rekyia (played by Yinka Adesina) and I appeared in a few more scenes with the enforcers in hot pursuit.

Those were some of my brief but cherished and unforgettable moments with ‘Uncle’ Jimi Solanke on the set of Soyinka’s movie, Blues for a Prodigal.

Much said, it was sheer fun to be on the same set with him. For any fledgling like me, there was usually one thing or another to learn from him. Off-set, when we let our hair down, he carried no airs around him. He was always good company. Tall, slim and dark: you would not, as they say, miss him in a crowd. Try ignoring him, his iconic voice would always rise above the raging din of the market-place, striking and soothing even the most impervious ear. The last time we met, a few years ago at Prof. Tunde Babawale’s birthday at the University of Lagos, he sang and danced as if to bring back the old days. The moments were suffused with old school music and dance and nostalgic recollections of times past.

Doubtless, Solanke’s tutelage under Soyinka from 1960 helped to form and shape his professional career. The high point of that career and his working with Soyinka was perhaps the enactment of the role of Elesin Oba in the latter’s beautiful play, Death and the King’s Horseman. According to Professor James Gibbs, one of the best known authorities on Soyinka’s works, in his tribute on Jimi Solanke which was published in The Guardian (Nigeria) of February 18, 2024:

“In 1976, he created the monumental role of Elesin Oba in Death and the King’s Horseman. Thanks to Gerald Moore, who reviewed the University of Ife production for West Africa magazine (10th January, 1977), we have a vivid account of Solanke’s outstanding portrayal. Moore wrote as follows:

‘Fortunately Jimi Solanke, who has to carry the bulk of the play in the role of the Elesin, turned in what must be the performance of his life. His expressive body and eloquent dancing were matched by a voice of great range and flexibility. Not a word was lost, and each word in the right verbal texture of this beautiful play was made to work within our understanding.’

History was made by that production and that performance…” – James Gibbs

And what a production! What a performance!

The ground squirrel, hands in the air, was once quoted to have wryly declared: ‘whatever one knows how to do well always effortlessly comes out like magic! Whenever he is going on a farm, he does not know how groundnuts roll into his mouth’.

Those words suit Solanke when he bestrode the stage. But as the years and the nation rolled on like a bolekaja lorry and theatre activities disappointingly dwindled, he devoted more time to music – a love from his younger days.

Born on July 4, 1942 in Lagos, he had started out much early with highlife music. He wrote the lyrics of Roy Chicago’s ‘Onilegogoro‘ when he was still in secondary school. He later joined musical bands and sang highlife pieces at night clubs in Lagos and Ibadan. He formed and ran a highlife band with Orlando Julius Ekemode. Thanks to highlife and juju pioneer, I. K. Dairo who bought the duo musical instruments and a vehicle. They toured the towns a bit until they crashed the lorry and, with it, their dream. That was in the 1960s. In-between acting, however, he continued his music. He recorded a few albums here in Nigeria and in the United States. When he returned home, he teamed up with Biddy Wright for musical shows at the National Theatre and elsewhere. They formed the high-flying Wura-Fadaka band which lit up the social circles of the late 1980s and early 1990s with old school music. Biddy Wright would tragically later perish in a domestic fire incident in the mid-90s.

Solanke’s music, a kind of afrobeat, is a fusion of highlife, jazz and local rhythms and themes. ‘Bare Eni Joye‘ and ‘Ojooje‘ are some of his popular pieces. His songs are evocative, directed to the soul. They strike and stir the spirit.

Jimi Solanke would be better remembered as the man with the song and the story. He would be remembered as Baba Agba, the aged story-telling grandpa, on several Nigerian television stations. He would be remembered by children who, gripped, gathered round him to listen to his spellbinding stories. Younger generations would see him as the old piper whom they, enchanted, followed out of town even as he too led their path. As Baba Agba, he made the role of the African story-teller most fascinating, transporting his audience, right on and through television, back to the days when there was no television.

Today, the arts landscape is considerably diminished by the singular departure on February 5, 2024 of this great actor, singer, folklorist, dancer and visual artist, Jimi Solanke. True, he could so often struggle with himself. Yet, in the end, as a masquerade with cloaks of many colours, he wore many more masks than most. And there was hardly any he wore that he did not, in spite of himself, breathe and stamp a unique and captivating presence onto.

‘A man is either born to his trade, or he is not’, Soyinka would say in Death and the King’s Horseman. Jimi Solanke would, in all estimation, appear to have been born into his. He was in his elements in leading roles. He could combine easily the majestic movements of the royal with the stately features and gait of the tragic figure. And he could sing to boot! A delight to watch any day, he was always almost sufficient spectacle at any show.

We remember his wife and children at this time. Mrs. Toyin Solanke would appear to be the proverbial woman behind her man. She too was at a time a member of the University of Ife Theatre. Through the uncertainties, the ups and downs, and the ons and offs like ‘NEPA’ (our national electricity supply), like most marriages, she stands like a pillar… showing that indeed love conquers all.

Baba Agba, these children clambering about your feet ask for but one more song, one more story… Baba Agba, they are here. Baba Agba, they are all ears… Alas, it’s all silence as lights dim and curtains close! Ale le, awo mi lo (Night falls, the adept departs). A new song, a new act unfolds only in the horizon. Jimi Solanke takes a bow and exits the stage. A stalwart heads home. He feels for direction. May he find guidance on his path…

Orebiyii, a farmer in Ogun State, Nigeria, wrote this tribute

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