By DOTUN OLUBI
The life of 76-year-old Jimoh Aliu has been about drama, theatre arts and culture. A mere mention of his name evokes memories of those glorious days of television drama series that typified the rich Yoruba culture and tradition, taught morals and entertained his teeming fans. From Igbo Olodumare to Arelu to Yanpo-Yanrin, his productions were a must-watch.
In this interview Jimoh Aliu talks about his early life, family, secrets of his youthfulness and what led to the estrangement between him and his delectable wife and actress Folake Onisola aka Orisabunmi and other issues.
You recently turned 76. At your age, are you still relevant in theatre arts? Are there roles you can still play?
There are no roles I cannot play, age not withstanding. I dance, I drum, I sing, I do set design and I still compose and produce plays. There is no part assigned to me that I cannot adequately play. From childhood I have always been versatile and can play different roles and character, even comedy. Technology has brought a lot of enhancements to the theatre world. In our time, they used to call us Alarinjo (dance as you walk). We went from town to town on foot.
When we arrived in a town, we would go to the Oba to pay homage and announce our presence. The Oba would call the chiefs and direct the town crier to go around and inform the community of our presence and mission. We would paste pictures of our previous plays on cardboards and hang on the neck like a kitchen apron for visibility, both front and back. And how much were we paid then? Six pence and at times, one shilling!
If held back by rain or if our show for the day did not yield income, we would be at the mercy of the Oba who then took up our feeding. Most times we resorted to begging his subjects for garri and other foodstuffs to survive.
Those in theatre today didn’t pass through what we went through. They are the beneficiaries of our sufferings.
Considering theatre arts and drama of your era and now, which is more prominent and well embraced?
The two seem to have bonded together. So they seem to be at par. In our time, there was no technological enhancement. There was nothing like doing effects on camera and other stuffs we have these days. Take for an instance, I was producing Igbo Olodumare all the stunts did then were real. No faking. Whatever we desired to happen, we simply conjured and it happened. Assuming we desired a role for a snake, antelope or any other animal, would conjure the animal to appear. Then it was raw charms just the way our grandfathers use to do it!
But these days, computer technology has made it possible to create such scenes and make it look as if you truly have those animals in the cast. It’s the recognition of acting in my era, as primitive as it was, that sustained my relevance in the society today.
I’m always amazed wherever I go all over the world and people greet me or ask if I was the famous Aworo or Jimoh Aliu they watched on the screen, be it in London, America, Italy, Belgium, Holland and even Saudi Arabia. I’m always accosted on the streets.
Some will say they were then in primary school; some in secondary school and others in the university. Some others will even mention when I was in the army. Yes! I was in the 3rd Marine Commando of the Nigerian army for seven and half years.
My contemporaries then became brigadiers and generals. others who we used to play for then in the schools and universities have become judges, lawyers and some are now traditional rulers.
That’s why anywhere I go today, I’m received with honour and dignity because all these people know what I stand for and from where I was coming. I don’t drink or smoke; I am not addicted to kolanuts and neither do I womanize. I have never been treated with scorn or in shabby manner, anywhere I go.
Plays of the two eras are good and commendable, but we wrote fantastic scripts that are incomparable with what you have now. If you sit to watch today’s plays, five minutes is enough for one to predict the likely end. Plays of today most times lack suspense and originality.
There were plays we did over 30 to 40 years ago that some of these youngsters turn around to make them seem recent. Some even plagiarize famous Indian films out of lack of creativity. They don’t research much!
Recently, I was watching a play and was amused at seeing one of my old productions being shamefully cloned.
You just said that you neither drink, smoke nor womanize and it is said that no affluent man can avoid these three vices. Yet you have several wives, how come?
In theatre arts in those days, we married multiple wives to stabilize our troupes. Take for instance during the time of Fadeyi Oloro, we may decide to make Orisabunmi who might be the real wife the stage wife. And if someday decided to pull out and form another group, the famous Orisabunmi role would be technically dead.
So since no dramatist worth his onions wanted to lose fans and in effect popularity, we conceived the idea of conscripting our wives into some roles or marrying those we felt were assets and indispensable.
Also, some others were needed at home to guide the children in terms of their education and moral upbringing because of the itinerant nature of our profession, which made it impossible for the breadwinners to adequately monitor their upbringing on a daily basis. But now, I have just three wives. Those who could not understand me have left – either they were arrogant, not submissive or honest.
You said earlier that you were once in the army. You once learned bricklaying and had your hands in some other things. If you had not been a dramatist, which other profession do you think you could have embraced?
If I had not been a dramatist, I could have been engaged in the profession of my forebears – I would have become a babalawo (diviner or native priest). That was the professional calling of my grandfather. And that is what I am fully engaged in now.
It was foretold long ago that I would end up practicing the profession of my forebears at old age. Each time I heard such, I was furious and I protested, asking why it must be me. Having traveled far and wide, I could not imagine myself coming back to practice as a native doctor. Over the years, Islamic clerics and pastors continually prophesied the same future for me.
But I noticed that if people came to visit me and complained of one affliction or another and I would ask them to pluck this or that leaf and use in so and so way; they would get cured and come back to give testimony.
These were things I learned from my father, but I thought they were inconsequential; that’s why I was nonchalant about what I knew. So when they came back to thank me, they would ask me what they should pay. They were always amazed when I said they should pay nothing. These people usually confessed that they gone to several places and spent enormous amounts of money with getting solution.
They encouraged me to consider going into it full time. Even without advertising, I cannot cope with the number of people who throng here in search of solution.
You were privy to my discussions with the lady that just left with her husband and mother. She came all the way from England. I have just dispensed with one that left three days ago; she stayed for a whole week! Just before you came I received a call intimating me of yet another person that just landed at the airport and was on the way here from Lagos.
The growing interest is why I am renovating and upgrading my building to accommodate my clients who spend a lot on hotel bills just to see me in Ado Ekiti. I am upgrading the place to save them money while giving them comfort. How can I cope with the score of patrons if I advertise? Can you imagine the scenario if I advertise?
There’s danger in having a multitude to attend to when one cannot satisfy them. As some are complaining of their discomfort, others have lack of decent meal to contend with. To some others still, where to put up would be their headache.
So, it’s not good for you to advertise and have so many to attend to and yet cannot adequately cater for their needs and give them prompt attention. You cannot fully imagine their inconveniences; especially if they came from a far place. To my mind, not catering adequately for them is in itself a sin against their souls. What I do that amazes most people is that I have different people to cater for their different needs: some responsible for entertaining them; some to take care of their accommodation and feeding. I even have a chauffeur to drive them around if they so desire for the number of days they have to stay.
My wives often query my rationale for all these, wondering how much I was paid. I tell it should not all be about money.
In some instances I have had cause to be invited on locations and in such cases, the money I spent was usually far more than the amount I was paid because most times, one meets struggling acts who look up to you to augment the pittance they earn there. In some cases you encounter fans and uninvited enthusiasts who you cannot just ignore given one’s status as a star, a role model or a father figure. In other words, the prophecy came to pass as my hen eventually came home to roost.
At 76 what can we attribute your youthfulness and wellbeing to? Many at your age are either down with stroke, have eye defects, suffer memory loss or are frail.
I have nothing special to attribute this to other than God’s grace. My father lived up to be 135 years. He was neither blind, crippled nor encountered any defects. On the day he departed this world, he had gone to Eid (Islam’s greater festival) and after arriving home, he superintended the slaughtering of his obligatory ram; went to bed and that was it!
We used to run after him as he walked along, because we could not match his pace. That should tell you how strong and agile he was until death.
As for me, I do not know why God has been this gracious to me. That’s why you find me giving gratitude and praising Allah for hours everyday. I cannot thank Him enough. I engage in other routines I feel can prolong one’s life. For instance I jog in the morning after praying. I love eating bitter and natural things. I request for squeezed bitter leaf solution and effirin, which I drink regularly. I sometimes prefer to have my palm oil extracted direct and sieved from the kernel for my soup. I also love taking our local herbs (Agbo) but not paraga. I also take fresh vegetables. And rest very well when I feel like.
Do you know that sometimes I drive all the way from Ado Ekiti to Abuja? People were amazed and some reprimanded me to desist from it. But I regard long distance driving as exercise my body needs.
Talking about longevity and my achievements, I also believe I was specially anointed by the Creator because my mother had been in a previous marriage for 17 years without a child before having me. And as expected of the son of a babalawo, lots of herbs and concoctions taken by my mother to fortify me in the womb were found in my palms when I came forth. It was then collected and added to other items, gathered into an Ape (earthen ware) as bath herb (Agbo) for my first bath.
Do you know I rely on the bible and Qu’ran in my practice? How I do these remain a mystery to even me. Perhaps it is as a result of my affiliation with pastors and alfas. Aside these, I have traveled wide in search of knowledge and I’m a very curious person by nature.
I have been to virtually all the countries in Europe, America, West Africa, Cuba and even Saudi Arabia where I was made the patron of the Yoruba community and awarded a certificate. There, I do not sit under tents whenever I visit the holy land. I always move around all through my stay. I visited the ancestral home of Prophet Mohammed (SAW), where I was presented with a unique Qu’ran that is still with me till today. I just arrived from a pilgrimage recently.
Now let us touch on the issue of your estranged wife and actress, Folake Onisola, aka Orisabunmi. There are various accounts on how she left you for someone else. It was rumored at a time that she left you for King Sunny Ade. How far is this true?
First let tell you that God brought us together in a very miraculous way. Whatever one desires to embark upon in life, the person should put God first. If one is not close to God, there is nothing that the devil cannot do. When we first met, prophets, alfas and even traditionalists bombarded us with lots of prophetic warnings not to fight or separate. We got such messages regularly. We tried to heed the warnings. But when the devil struck, the agent that satan used to accomplish the mission was the man she eloped with. I won’t mention his names. Funny enough, this man came to seek my intervention when, as he claimed, that omo-oniles had taken his land at Egbeda, Lagos. He was the Judas used to snatch her from me.
The omo-oniles chased him out of the land with cutlasses and cudgels. He came crying to me! He probably must have heard of my closeness to all Aworis, especially in the whole of Alimosho. They love and adore me so much in Egbe, Egbeda, Isheri, Ikotun and so on. I am very close to all their Obas. And that love and affection was the reason they gave me a piece of land to build my house in Egbeda house. And all these Obas had gotten acquainted with me for long. Majority of them had not mounted the throne then. I came to Lagos in 1946 and had been engaged in this profession since 1969.
Now going back to Orisabunmi, when I met her and the relationship began, she was so naïve and innocent. In fact, she had never been to Lagos. I brought her to Lagos for the first time! When we met, I noticed she was a child of light, destined for greatness. I did not fail to tell her so, and I promised to make her a star. And the Lord was on our side.
I was able to groom her and brought out the best of her talents. I took her around the world. We travelled far and wide within the country and to other African countries including Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Benin Republic. We also visited England, Italy, Belgium and Germany. We even went to America.
Back to the man: I went with him to the land and as soon as the boys saw me, they began hailing me, saying, Baba Aworo! Baba Aworo! Upon seeing him with me, they protested saying, ‘This is the man that wants to take our land.’ I countered by educating them that I have several wives and that I bought the land for Orisabunmi and only asked the young man to represent me there so the land would not be taken from her.
They capitulated immediately! I asked him if he could raise some amount so that work could commence right there on the site in my presence. He did so and work began there that same day. Blocks and other materials were brought. In fact I ordered the boys to act as the custodians of the plot, and so it was till the house was completed.
All the while, as the construction was going on, he had been clandestinely scheming his plot. You know I had presented Orisabunmi to them as the one I bought the plot for, so her usual presence there couldn’t be queried or suspected. By the time the building was completed I was in London. He moved into the house with her. Yes! The house built on the land I fought tooth and nail to ensure he did not lose. They began living there together as husband and wife!
What should I have done in such a situation? You can see that was a big trial from God – a great tribulation. All manner of people came to me in protest that I should fight back. But I adamantly refused to do so. I kept telling them I would not be a party to destroying the house I built. Orisabunmi is the house I built.
There was even a time a certain man was attacked and smeared her on the pages of newspapers. I frowned at it and protested because Orisabunmi is an institution. She should not be disparaged or maligned. In the end, she and the man broke up.
As it stands today, we greet one another wherever we meet. And whenever she was interviewed, she never failed to give me credit as the one who discovered, groomed and brought her to prominence. In her time, no one knew I had other wives.
All said, what is good needs prayer and what is not good also needs prayer. I pity Folake. I truly sympathize with her. Only God can judge the man that squeezed the bitter juice into our sweet relationship and turned it sour. It’s only Him that can judge the man that took her from me.
The Lord says ‘He always will stand by the just and upright’. You see, that man had drawn the grasscutter’s tail, eehn…! The Lord also is drawing his too. And he who shoots an arrow onto the sky taking refuge under the mortar, if the earthly king does not see him, the heavenly one does. He was not there when we were building that name! Ask me where he is today? The Creator never sleeps.
In all, I pray God Almighty to continue to protect and shield her. It had been destined that there will not be children between us, and I know it is the same devil at work. As for me, she is still in my heart and I do not leave her out of my prayers. My glory and pride is that she left my home with an enviable and glorious name and she had been carrying that with her wherever she goes. She is progressing and I am progressing.
I still call onto the Lord who in His mercies provided a child for Hannah. No matter how long, He will provide for her. But she should move closer to the Lord. She should be mindful of the fact that she is like the peacock in the world of birds. That is a proverb and the word of elders.
What about the rumor linking her with King Sunny Ade?
Don’t you know how long my relationship with KSA has lasted? Was Folake born when Sunny and I met? KSA calls me wherever he has a concert and wants me to attend. Even when he is celebrating, he never hesitates to invite me.
When his mother (Mama Pupa) died in Ondo, all of us were there. That should tell you how close we are. Look at the portrait over there (pointing). That’s a picture of both of us.
As for the rumoured affair with him, there is no iota of truth in that. It’s being spread to cause disaffection and confusion. Orisabunmi and myself met with him (KSA) severally. That was another of the devil’s ploy that I talked about earlier. There is nothing to stretch on that. It’s no issue, so let’s forget it!
Finally sir, how would you like to be remembered?
All the things I want the world to know and identify me with are those things that I had been doing and the proof of this has been my acceptance wherever I go. How else would I want to be remembered? I have lived to see how well I would be remembered while alive. See yourself, all these awards on the wall, I did not buy them. They show that people recognize my contributions.
That’s the reason why I’m calling on whoever or whichever organization is willing to give me awards to do so while I’m still alive o, so I can hang it with those you see there. No award will serve any purpose to me when I’m dead. It’s rare to find in the whole of this Nigeria someone as prominent and famous as I am. I’ve not been arrested for this and that offence in Lagos today, tomorrow in Ibadan, day after in London or America. Such had never been recorded about me. So I thank God for the legacy I’m going to leave behind. Nothing can speak more for me. When the time comes and I go the way of all flesh, journalists, scholars and tourists will come and see for themselves via these laurels. That aside, they will be astounded to hear stories hitherto unheard from my wives and children.