By Anote Ajeluorou
Jimi Solanke is a master in the folklore genre and has spent the past 50 years telling African stories to children. He draws significantly from African oral tradition, and has used the didactic morals in these tales to nurture generations of young ones to appreciate Africa’s core values. Now, he has taken his oral tales to another level, with the publication of a book, Ancient and Modern Tales.
In this narrative, the great grandpa storyteller tells of how he would christen his new book at his 71st birthday on Thursday this week, noting, “Those of us in the area of children entertainment, we often go into their realm and usually draw from our own experience things that will be total for them. There are people who do that from all over the world, people from America, in Disneyland created Micky Mouse. Till date some of our children are used to who Micky Mouse is.
“In my book Ancient and Modern Tales, the tales themselves provide guidance for the artworks, which are from the colours of newspapers use; no brush or oil was used but through innovativeness we create some things that I had imbibed as a child – some masquerades that waited for us at the river we normally go to collect water in my hometown, some characters that were used to frighten us as little children, some cultural entities that I grew up with. So, these artworks are fused in a seamless manner. That’s why I call the book ancient and modern; I related some modern frequencies to some of the characters that are very modern, all embedded in the tales. And it has been finished as a book over a year ago, but somehow I’ve been busy. But then I said out of 365 days a year, what are you busy doing? I now said use that your birth to christen, like a child naming ceremony, for this book.
“And I’m asking these people who are my bankers and those who put up adverts to come be part of it. But I know it’s not soccer, it’s not hiphop, it’s not golf, but it’s something more realistic than all these things I’ve mentioned because when you’ve lived a life more than 70, and you’re still proud of whatever profession you’ve been doing, all these extensions, this kind of book, the kind of album that have been coming out, they are all extension to the profession. In the book you’ll see my involvement with dramatic arts because some of those because of those I created are very dramatic; you’ll find some dramatic figurations in the writings.
“And you’ll see me and you’ll see the child that’s still inherent in me!”
At 71, when many would have long forgotten about their childhood, Solanke says he just couldn’t. But he also says what children these days have lost in not being able to listen to grandpas and grandmas tell culturally-stimulating folktales like the ones he tells, they have gained by being exposed to IT, video games and computers. So, he asserts, “Culturally, they have lost the aspect of intense rhythm and rhyme of our culture. But on the other hand, they have gained IT and 36 hours of music in one small pallet they call memory card, a small digital gadget, something you can mistake for sweet but it’s not sweet.
“Also, they now have games; I’m telling you it’s in this manner that these people created games from the other parts of the world. Those games, the characters that you see in them are just created to excite children. They are animative movements made to whip questions from the minds of children because as I’ve been able to work with children for over 50 years now, I noticed that they are very honest. They are honest in blanket of integrity, ready to absorb a lot of education that is offered them.
“So, children are I have been friends now for a long time. They call me great grandpa because some people I have interacted with have now become grandfathers and it’s very interesting. And because when you’re in this area, a lot of things can make you special because of your interest. I say something everyday; that ambition can make you into something but desire can do something else for you.
“In all my work, I did what I do not because of money or recognition. Before we started doing it on WNTV/WNBS in Ibadan, artists of those days were doing it because they loved doing it, and because of local popularity and familiar appreciation among those around them. What we were doing then kept us unlike today when we do it because we want to make money.
“So, we were desirous of it; that’s the reason why personally, even when I’m 80 or 90, I’ll still be working with children”.
The master storyteller is alarmed that what we are loosing in terms of culture, is being gained by outsiders, and that a time is coming when it would be exported back for us to buy. His book, he posits, is a possible means of stemming that ugly tide, adding, “There are comics being done here. But what we’re loosing on this side, some people are gaining on their own side. We are as Africans have looked down too much on our cultural heritage; we have looked down so much on it. We’ve got to a point where we’ve learnt from different cultures and imbibed them, raised them higher than our own original attitudes of being. There is a great personality in one of the newspapers. These are people, artists who can do great things. But when you take them to people who have just sponsored hiphop productions to the tune of millions of naira, they don’t show interest. Whereas, foreigners will soon be coming to teach us our culture; foreigners will come here to teach us our culture!”
He explained further, “A lot of people traveling out and coming back tell us many things. My wife just came back from Cuba and said the impact Cuban House of Culture made on her was so huge. Their traditional Nigerian, African culture orientation, practices in their shrines left her dumbfounded because of what she saw. These things we’re gladly throwing away in the name of foreign religion - usually Christianity and Islam - Cubans and other Diaspora Africans have gathered them and given them their rightful place, place of pride. And they were telling my wife and others, ‘look, your blood is in us; your blood is in us. Can you dance to bata? Can you dance to dundun drums?!’ And they played them the way they know it.
“And my wife and the others were all surprised. And they were dressed in the old ritual regalia. My wife said it reminded her of one iya osun in Badagry, who knew nothing more than osun worship in those days; that person in Cuba was dressed like that Badagry woman of old. That’s the way I mean it by saying foreigners will come here to teach us our culture in years to come. These things we’re throwing away are the things people outside are studying very seriously, deeply, like the Yoruba language and culture, just like Hausa, Igbo and many other African languages and cultures. They are being taught in different universities in America and South America. Whereas, we’re abhorring the fact that our languages be taught to our children because we want our children to understand how to speak good English! But the children end up speaking the wrong type of English”.
UNLIKE most culture producers and promoters who believe that savaging culture resides solely with government, Solanke provides a better argument. According to him, “What culture promoters like me should do we’re still doing and earning accolades for being able to continue doing them – we’re still researching, still raking up information in different poetic lyrics, in drama; yes, we’re still doing it. But everything cannot depend on government alone.
“There is only one ministry of culture and tourism, but they have no money for everything in culture promotion. Take for instance, Nigeria’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. If you look through that ministry, you’ll see different parastatals or smaller units – National Theatre, Centre for Black African Arts and Culture, National Gallery of Arts; under tourism, there are also different units. If you count them they are up to 13 or more under one ministry. Which one then should be responsible for language promotion? Which among them is that one that is doing the job of cultural reorientation? Which one?
“So, there must be that political will, total interest from government to say that our culture must be prime in our agenda, then they will get people who will sponsor it. They all have their ready-made curriculum; they all have their ready-made approach to how to run their programmes in their different parastatals. They run them this year; they will run them next year and so on without producing any result in anything concrete.
“We cannot then say government can or should do it. Now, let me tell you something about our multinational money-gobbling organisations. They have their jobs to do in the country in their areas of operation. Are they doing it? No! They are doing much less or nothing when it comes to cultural interest. Let me tell you, in England, they spend billions of pounds in sustaining not only the British culture, but some other cultures that are domiciled in Britain. I’ve had friends who had thousands and millions of pounds in grants to come and document something here in Nigeria and we worked together on those projects. Now, they took those documents away and kept them over there; we can’t have access to them.
“So like I said, they will come back and reach us our culture and we’ll pay heavily. Such are the importance of multinationals in other parts of the world. Even in America, I earned $10,000 just to be telling stories to their children and to teach them how to build African huts from mud and clay; we go and collect grass and make some other African artefacts. What have we done here? We’re so self-oriented. Even if the money is put out, it will be chopped by those in charge!”
He also understands the prevailing apathy in government circles and the ambivalence of the nation’s motion picture sector and what it keeps unleashing on society. As he states, “Not many people are concerned because they have equated our culture with rituals and voodoo and killings and demonism like it’s being portrayed in Nollywood films…
“Yes, it is, even to the extent that it frightens many of these people. In their minds, when you talk about culture, the next things is, the man will die! Or how he will use his wife or son for money ritual; they have forgotten that traditional culture is very far apart from such rituals. Traditional culture and religion are not as bastardized as what is being portrayed in these films!
“They are all in this same bracket; the noise has been going before the advent of Nollywood, as far back as 1968 and 1971, the noise that government should back culture in all forms. Do those in government know anything! Let them go to Mbare in Enugu; let them go to some other places, the shrine in Ede. Now, let me take another example; when the white men came and showed them that Osun Osogbo is a very important deity, that’s when government came into it and began to promote it. That’s a strong example for you. So, we are trying to say that a lot of our cultural expansions will be developed by outsiders and then government will take interest. Nollywood is not our only cultural expression; no!”
This Thursday at Freedom Park, Lagos Island, Solanke will launch the book. He explains what it is intended to achieve and those who will attend, noting, “There are things in it that are written for the ordinary man. I don’t have a Ph.D or degree, but I only attended the School of Drama in 1963 at University of Ibadan and became a performer. And since then I have been able to practicalise every aspect of my study; that’s why I sing, I dance even at 71 and people will clap. I have trained professionals, who work with me and I take them to the areas where we do research. When we talk about kurekure in those days as children, everybody will run back it was believed to be always lurking at the back of the school at night, and waiting to catch anybody that strays.
“There were so many stories; stories about ogomugomu and many others. This is just the first edition. We want the information to reach everybody about the cultural things around us by people who are working in that area so that ordinary people can have access and have something to gain from it.
“So, I’ve invited three of Her Excellencies (wives of Lagos, Ondo, Ekiti States); there will also be Chief (Mrs.) Maiden Ibru, Erelu Abiola Dosumu and Auty Franscesca Emmanuel all leading the pack. We’re talking about children here and a book about children and a book with a foreword written by Professor Wole Soyinka. So, when you call baba, he might not have the time, but when you call madam, they know it’s a bigger arena for them. Normally, you don’t talk about father and children; rather, you talk about women and children. That is the whole idea; it’s a children’s book; it’s a mothers’ thing!”