Tremors of sorrow rippled through the artistic community upon the announcement of the sudden departure of Jimi Solanke, also known as Baba Agba at 81, from this earth-life, a tragic event deemed an immeasurable loss to the realm of storytelling, writes Yinka Olatunbosun
Jimi Solanke’s sudden passing on Monday, February 5, sent shockwaves through the culture industry. This was even as many tried to come to terms with the inevitability of shocking news. Solanke, a true artistic stalwart, was revered for his immense contributions to Nigerian culture. On that fateful Monday, he was said to have been rushed to the Babcock University Teaching Hospital in Ilisan, where he breathed his last breath. Prior to his being taken to the hospital, he had taken ill at his country home in Ipara Remo, Ogun State.
Solanke’s legacy as a cultural luminary is firmly entrenched, as he holds a well-deserved place among the Who’s Who in Contemporary World Theatre. His deep, melodic baritone voice resonates as a testament to his talent, particularly in his role as the narrator in Femi Adebayo’s critically acclaimed Netflix masterpiece titled Jagun Jagun.
Before his emergence as a cultural folk hero, Solanke was born on July 4, 1942, in Lagos and attended Olowogbowo Methodist School. Later, he proceeded to Odogbolu Grammar School for his secondary school education. His father and uncle wanted him to become an engineer, but he defied their wish and honed his craft till he became a popular face on television and in the newspapers.
Solanke’s oeuvre is loaded: he is a singer, dancer, actor, narratologist, writer, painter, and teacher. He acted in many of Ola Balogun’s films, including Wole Soyinka’s and Ola Rotimi’s dramatic productions.
As a teenager, his father had sent him to Ibadan, away from Lagos, after he had composed a hit tune for Roy Chicago, a highlife artist. The idea was to remove him from the buzzing nightlife in the city. Upon his arrival in Ibadan, Solanke linked up with musicians such as Afrobeat pioneer Orlando Julius and highlife maestros of the period, IK Dairo and Eddie Okonta. His meeting with Soyinka changed his trajectory, and he ventured into the theatre, shuttling between Ibadan and Ile-Ife.
Solanke was one of the first set of graduates of The School of Drama at the Institute of African Studies, the first in Africa at the University of Ibadan.
It later became the Department of Theatre Arts. Solanke later joined the Department of Dramatic Arts at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU) in 1969. He is an associate fellow of the Institute of Cultural Studies.
Mentored by the likes of Wole Soyinka, Ola Rotimi, Akin Euba, Peggy Harper, Dapo Adelugba, and Demas Nwoko, Solanke was one of the thoroughbreds of his generation in the performing arts.
In the early 1970s, Solanke acted in a production of Rotimi’s Ovonramven Nobaisi in Benin City. His outstanding performance led to an offer of appointment by Governor Samuel Ogbemudia at the Mid-Western Region Arts Council. He subsequently spent almost four years as a cultural officer in Benin. His next major dramatic assignment was a role in Wale Ogunyemi’s Langbodo, Nigeria’s entry for FESTAC 77. In that production, Solanke performed alongside Nollywood great Sam Loco Efe.
Upon graduation, he moved to the United States of America, where he created a drama group called The Africa Review, which performed at Afro-American schools. In 1986, he returned to his home country, Nigeria, with three members of the group to work with the Nigerian Television Authority. One of the most memorable productions at NTA then was ‘Storyland.’
With the power to ignite mental pictures, Solanke fuelled the imagination of the youthful viewers with folktales, teaching valuable moral lessons with each episode.
Other productions where he left his mark at the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) include well-known programmes like The Bar Beach Show, For Better or Worse, Village Headmaster, and Family Scene on Lagos Television (LTV). He also made significant contributions to Children’s Half Hour, African Stories on AIT, and the captivating film Sango: The Movie, among many others. Looking back, he played a pivotal role as part of the team behind the acclaimed movie Kongi’s Harvest, which was penned by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. Additionally, he took on leading roles in renowned theatrical performances such as Death and the King’s Horseman, Kurunmi, Chattering and the Song, Ovoramwen Nogbaisi, The Divorce, and more. As a multi-talented artist, Solanke also composed popular folk songs like ‘Onile Gogoro,’ ‘Eje ka jo,’ ‘Jenrokan,’ and ‘Na Today You Come.’ He even showcased his exceptional vocal abilities as the lead voice in Ralph MacDonald’s The Path, a recording made in New York in 1977. Furthermore, he served as a consultant for Theatre for Development, UNICEF, UNFPA, and Women and Children’s Health initiatives.
His death has certainly left a vacuum in Nigeria’s creative space. In a tribute from Chief Olubunmi Ayobami Amao, the Director-General, Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization, Solanke, also fondly called Uncle Jimi, was eulogised for his immense contributions to the culture scene.
“Among our several fond memories of the late thespian at CBAAC was when he served as chairman at our 2021 public lecture on ‘African Hairstyles, Dress Culture, and Fashion in Contemporary Times’ held in Ibadan.
“He was also a lead presenter at our 2021 international conference titled ‘The Renaissance of African Culture: Music, Crafts, Language, Literature, and Folklore’ in Lagos.”
President Ahmed Bola Tinubu also described the late storyteller as “one of the finest of Nigeria’s creative artists and a bastion of our cherished mores and cultural heritage.”