Home Arts Literary Encounter with UK-based teacher who captures Jimi Solanke in biography

Encounter with UK-based teacher who captures Jimi Solanke in biography

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If Jimi Solanke was a cat with many lives, Oluwatoyin Sutton dared him. At least, she dared to tame him in a book. The legendary musician, actor, dancer and storyteller died two months ago but she has helped preserve his memory and legacies in the biography titled, Jimi Solanke: The Indestructible.

From his birth in 1942, to his foundation schools in Lagos and Ijebu-Ode, through professional years in Ile-Ife, Ibadan, other parts of the country and the United States, Sutton follows the rolling stone that rather gathered indelible moss to all cardinal points of his life. She then presents him eternally in a painstakingly structured down-to-earth prose, laden with revelations, idioms and inspiring photographs. In The Indestructible, the author, who teaches English in the United Kingdom and had earlier published a collection of poems titled, Kiln of Selfhood, indeed truly does a great service to an African memory. And she seems to believe she had some personally obligation to reenact Solanke’s life based on how they met:

“I would say the best way to describe who Uncle Jimi was to me is to say he was like a father-figure, because he was actually a part of my childhood growing up in Ile-Ife. So, the year I was born was when he came to Ife, and obviously, he was in Ife for the first 10 years, and then he came back in the 1980s, and then again, towards the end of his life.

“My father had a club, The Beacon, and Uncle Jimi used to play Sunday jams when I was a teenager, and we used to go and listen. He was a friend of my parents, so he was in my childhood and my early adulthood before I left the country. So, I actually used to follow him, being this charismatic figure in the newspaper. And all of a sudden, things had died down in the 1990s.

“Then, towards the end of 2016, I got a phone call from another childhood friend who had spent the night before in one of our drinking places in Ife, and he had spent the night chatting with Uncle Jimi, and he said to me, ‘this old man has lots of stories to share. He was talking to me about his life and it was so wonderful. We should write the stories.

“I had lost track of Uncle Jimi; I felt a thud in my heart. He was over 70 and he was still able to recount all those stories vividly. How much longer would he be able to recall them so vividly? ‘This was the time’, I thought. I am not a writer in that professional sense but my instinct was that I could at least take notes and preserve them, and that was my approach, because I felt it would be a wonderful thing to capture what he had to say about his life, what he had seen and observed, any reflections and insights, if he could have done something differently and to reflect people he worked with. So, I approached him and he was so excited that I had taken an interest, and we took it from there, basically”.

Solanke is no more but Sutton feels cute that she completed the project to the extent that the man received it as The Indestructible was first symbolically released in 2022. It emerged from a protracted labour but the writer is convinced that the pain was all worth embracing based on the essence of the enigmatic Solanke, whose story is also the story of many of his contemporaries. She explains in an interview: “This book is important for a lot of different reasons. One of the major reasons is that Uncle Jimi’s story is a metaphor for what I would describe as the unsung heroes of the arts, who have given their entire lives to building the industry today. And when I say arts, I mean all-encompassing — music, theatre, poetry, visual arts. I’m talking about men and women who have built what we have today that actually have been more or less forgotten.

“Uncle Jimi’s story allowed us — I mean Uncle Jimi and myself — to actually celebrate the existence of that social history and the history around theatre, and the development of the early highlife scene in Ibadan, and also to mark the growth of theatre from its early forms at the University of Ibadan. So, it was important that his story be told, because we all learnt a thing or two, and I certainly did. When someone else has made mistakes, it’s easy for us to sit back and look at them and say, ‘Oh, that was a terrible thing to do,’ but once we understand the context, we begin to empathise. And I think a lot of the time, if you don’t know somebody’s story, you can make judgements about their life from afar, and I think having the story is so important because it gives Uncle Jimi’s position on many things — a voice — so we can then judge on an even keel.

“I think it also maps, not just his story, but the story of his contemporaries who were with him as young apprentices in the 1960s. He wasn’t alone. There were other significant artists, dramatists, men and women of the theatre who were also apprentices with Prof. Wole Soyinka, who also grew through the theatre, and their stories mingled with his. In particular, it shines light on the relationship with his best friend whom he described as being like 5’n’6, the late Wale Ogunyemi, who was a particular influence in his Ibadan days.

“So, we get snippets of other individual lives; we get snippets of Soyinka as a young, amazing spirited creative. We get stories around Mbari Club, and it’s a complete context that we kind of explore. We are thrown into it and we see a different world. So, I think it was a lot to bring together but it had to be done, and Jimi Solanke particularly was an amazing subject, because he was very keen for the story to come out. So, he would answer questions via WhatsApp; his memory was so good and he would have answered 10 questions by morning and the answers were like pages, because they were so long, and we would sift out the information. I think he was desperate that he tell the story before… and so it was non-stop.

“I had a full-time job as we all have, so it was difficult sometimes to find the time to squeeze this out and give it the focus, but, by the grace of God, you have to keep going when your subject is so determined. You can’t give up because he seemed completely inspired that this story has to come out. We just can’t forget it. We can’t just keep it on the bookshelf. We need the world to read it and understand that this is not insignificant”.

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