‘…people play acts on stage, but he becomes the character’
By Godwin Okondo
AS the weeklong activities gradually wind down for the celebration of one of Nigeria’s elder artsmen, Jimi Solanke who turned 80 on July 4, 2022, friends and associates in the culture ecosystem rose as one man to pay homage to the one some fondly call Uncle Jimi, a moniker he acquired while regaling children (and adults at home alike) with folktales on national TV, NTA 10. There has been so much fanfare as friends, family and well-wishers gathered in a rich calendar of activities to celebrate and share great moments of the rich artistic life of Solanke, easily a legend who has remained untiring, forever dreaming up new schemes in his longstanding commitment to the arts in spite of his age.
And so on Friday, July 1, when the Jimi Solanke festivities began, a virtual conference took to discuss the times of Solanke at OriOlokun Theatre. Thereafter, the book, Jimi Solanke: The Indestructible, written by Oluwatoyin Sutton, was introduced. The book tells the story of Solanke’s early years and his growth into who he is today, as a foremost artist straddling many genres – particularly music and theatre.
Following the book presentation was the viewing of a short film titled Jimmy Show by Ayo Adewunmi, in which people who have encountered Solanke spoke about him, and also shared memories made with him.
While speaking about the film, Adewunmi said, “It’s my personal tribute to Jimi Solanke, to say ‘thank you’ for all he taught me. I was his apprentice, and he gave me the rudiments of directing. He is a father and friend, and can relate with anyone. I first met him at age 7 at the SevenUp Children’s show. The next time was in school, when I had problems getting my certificate, so he saw me and asked me to follow him, and he told me about a production he was working on and asked me to join. I became his PA, and he taught me everything I know concerning theatre, film and stage. Thank you very much, sir.”
Also, notable acquaintances of Solanke shared a few words about him, including screen and stage matriarch, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett.
“Salute to Toyin Solanke (Solanke’s wife) for taking good care of him,” she said. “Baba can be quite a handful. Thank you for supporting his talent and culture. I don’t think the country knows what a formidable actor he is; he is an intense performer and an extraordinary person. People play acts on stage, but he becomes the character.
“We never got to know one another very much. I first met him at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival when he came with a group, and I never got to see him perform because I was always on stage. Like good wine, you have aged well and you are several things to different people; you have enthralled me and lit my darkness. Thank you very much for being who you are and for being the blessing you’ve been to all of us.”
“I want to thank the organizers for making this arrangement to help celebrate Jimi Solanke,” said the legendary batik maker and art collector, Nike Okundaye. “It brings me joy just to see him perform. You have been an icon, you have always been there. A lot of people have many things to say about you today. I also want to thank Toyin Solanke for taking good care of you. Happy birthday to you.”
According to eminent art historian, Prof. dele jegede, “It’s very important to celebrate our icons while they are alive. Thanks to the writer of the book for bringing Jimi Solanke to the culture of our world. The Solanke aura envelopes everyone, as well as the intensity he brings into all of his acts. He is the personification of Yoruba culture. I wish you and your family all the joys that come with birthdays and also many more years.”
Sharing his experience working with Solanke, Dominic Fayenwuo said, “I met Jimi Solanke as a director when I was invited to be a part of Onidiri for Lagos@50. I’ve always heard of him, and to work under him was a wonderful experience. Happy birthday to our father, friend and legend, and we wish you many more years to come.”
Another of his protege, Adebayo Osula, said, “Uncle Jimi is like total theatre. He is an ancient landmark that we look up to. You see an unassuming leader in him, someone who is accommodating. When you see him on stage, you can see a living theatre. I want to thank God for sparing your life, so we can celebrate you. When I listen to some of your songs, they bring me back to my cultural roots. Thank you Uncle Jimi and happy birthday once again.”
Gbemisola Adeoti commended he organisers of Solanke’s 80th birthday festivity – Mr. Jahman Anikulapo and Prof. Niyi Coker – “for creating this platform to spend time with our legends in the arts. I want to congratulate Jimi Solanke for clocking this age, and mama who has been taking care of him.
“Growing up, I used to watch his storytelling on NTA which rekindled folktale sessions. He always brought life into his story sessions and you learn a lesson. First time I saw him was in Ife; his name always rang like a bell at the staff club. He relates with everyone and people will gather around him while he was there. Congratulations to a living legend.”
For Dr. Bisi Adigun, “A lot has been said about Jimi Solanke. Working with him is the best thing to happen to any director. He supports you in everything you do, and I believe God will continue to keep you for us. I wish you a happy birthday.”
Also sharing his experience with Solanke, actor Edmund Enaibe said, “Thank God for keeping you fit. My experience with Jimi Solanke is from my teenage years. He visited secondary schools in Benin City to groom us in theatre. Thanks so much to your wife for managing you and helping you preserve your energy. Happy birthday and long life to you. Thank you for leaving a big legacy for your children and all of us. Thank you to Jahman and Coker also for keeping us in touch with our cultural roots!”
For Sunnybars recounted how “he helped me while growing up in the 1980s. His programmes kept me going. Then, I would run home from school just to watch him. Thank you so much for being a big part of my life; I can now teach my children about my heritage. I also want to say thank you to his wife for taking good care of him.”
Solanke’s son, Taiwo, who was also at the programme expressed appreciation for the arrangements made to his father, Solanke. He remarked about his father’s untiring spirit, noting, “Thank you all for making this happen. On behalf of the Solankes, thank you very much. I have learnt so much more than what I knew. Thanks everyone for the honor you’ve brought with your presence and words. This will be a week blessed with grace. I thank God he’s turning 80, and the older he gets, the more he wants to do. He is a motivation everywhere he goes, so I encourage him to keep going and I pray God keeps him as the enigma he is.”