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Master storyteller brings folk tales to life

By Teo Kermeliotis, CNN
updated 5:48 AM EST, Fri January 6, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jimi Solanke is one of Nigeria's most public and prolific masters of performing arts
  • The master storyteller achieved success with his two children's TV shows
  • Solanke, 70, has also been taking his acting into villages to train aspiring artists

Editor's note: Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera.

(CNN) -- Whether it's through music, dancing or his art, Nigerian Jimi Solanke is a master of telling local folk stories.

The 70-year-old, who is fondly referred to as "Uncle Jimi," is one of the West African country's most accomplished performing artists, most famous for his story-telling on children's television shows.

"You put everything in a character and you bundle it as though you become it," says award-winning Solanke. "You don't play it on the thin skin, you play it from your middle."

Armed with an expressive face and a baritone voice, Solanke is renowned for his uncanny ability to tell stories, moving brilliantly and convincingly between characters and settings.

"The character playing is like getting into a spirit and 10-15 minutes after coming off stage ... I will still have that old warrior in me, until it fizzles out little by little," he says. "That is the acting I love -- the acting where your fingers are the fingers of the character, everything you're doing is what the character is doing," adds Solanke.

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The prolific artist, poet and singer rose to fame in Nigeria with his two children's television shows, "Storyland" and "African Stories." The successful TV programs were broadcast across the country, entertaining and educating different generations of Nigerian children.

"I discovered that children are very important people in this whole world," he says. "They know you inside out, if you stand in front of them, that you want to entertain them. If you are not serious about it, they will know and in less than five minutes you will lose their concentration."

Take me away from performance and in a week I'll be sick -- and I've never been sick because I've been performing all the time.
Jimi Solanke

Solanke has also released several music albums over the years and collaborated with many great playwrights on stage, including the Nobel Literature laureate Wole Soyinka.

He says that performing in front of an audience always makes him feel alive.

"Take me away from performance and in a week I'll be sick -- and I've never been sick because I've been performing all the time," says Solanke.

"I feel I am doing what God has asked me in life -- am I doing it well, I want to do it better still, I'm trying. I feel fulfilled when it comes to performing in front of audiences."

Despite his age, the septuagenarian performance artist says he has no plans of slowing down.

He lives and works with his wife at Obafemi Awolowo University in the city of Ife in south-west Nigeria and has recently started a new project -- creating 2,000 collages of local deities made out of newspapers.

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Solanke has also been taking his acting into the rural villages to train local aspiring artists and to help keep his Yoruba culture alive. He says traditions play a big part in his work.

"If you lose the perspectives of your culture as an artist anywhere in the world and you lose the depths of your cultural perspectives -- you can have nothing to sell," says Solanke.

"People like us, we will keep the flag of our ancestors flying, no matter what other spiritual concerns. At least at my age, I've lived it and seen it, I've taught it, I've discussed it, so I believe it can never be totally pushed into extinction," he adds.

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