How did it start? Paul and Lale were neighbors at 25 Branco Street, downtown Lagos, and after school, they would sit on their stoops and discuss ideas. And one day they decided to start their own organization. There were other clubs and organizations at the time but they felt those focused more on dances and fun fair and these two had more lofty goals. They had the grand idea at that young age to create an organization that would recognize artists in some small way and encourage people to aspire to and achieve greater heights socially, and in literary, dramatic and performance arts. They would completely eschew politics and political activities. And they were only in Form 3 or the equivalent of Junior High School.
Paul and Lale attended different schools; Paul was at Baptist Academy and Lale, CMS Grammar School, so they made a pact that each would bring in a friend. Paul brought in his best friend, Fola Sogbamimu, and Lale his cousin, Yemi Lijadu. Initially, they would have meetings and picnics to socialize and get themselves acquainted. This was even more important as new members from other schools joined. Formal meetings were held once every two months, but the Founding Four, who studied together, would meet regularly. The first meeting was held on a very hot, sunny day, Uncle Fola remembers, at 6 Vincent street, Yemi’s parents’ house. Fola became the first treasurer and may have doubled as the secretary back then and Yemi thinks Paul was the first Chairman.
Listen to Yemi Lijadu talk about the Solidra Circle, In His Own Words (15 mins):
They lived near each other and grew up together; 6 Vincent street was less than 5 minutes from 25 Branco street. They were interested in the arts, theatre, music, and culture. Paul was famous for playing the title role in the musical rendition of D.O. Fagunwa’s play, Ajantala, The Terrible Child. Lale was the local Bing (Crosby) and was in the dramatic, literary and debating societies at school. Yemi was a member of the Lagos Cathedral Choir and the CMS Grammar School soloist. He was also a member of a jazz band. Fola. along with Paul, was an excellent athlete and a great debater. They regularly took part in the annual Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos and won prizes. And this was the impetus for the Solidra Circle. These young and idealist boys wanted to create a more artistic and cultural society for themselves and for others to encourage everyone to do and be more.
The first event they held was a fun fair with a band, refreshments, dancing and debates. It was called Extravaganza and was held at the Hotel Wayfarers in downtown Lagos. They would also have picnics at a member’s family’s farm, Mr. Elliot’s, at Iganmu, Lagos. Other clubs were invited to come and debate with them. Events were financed with membership dues and contributions. They called themselves comrades, had their own tie, slippers and cap, all specially made with the elongated S. It was and still is an all boys club. Women are welcome and even honored, but not as members. Maybe someday that will change.
After the initial setup and organization, soon there was a lull as members began to concentrate on their studies. Most of the boys by 1949 were focused on graduating high school and pursuing higher education so they studied hard for the college entrance exams. And then there was a break as the founding four and other members started leaving for other shores. Paul was one of the first, leaving for England in 1950 and not returning until 1957. Fola left in 1954 and would remain in England. Yemi left in 1953 for training with the BBC. He would leave Nigeria again in 1964 to take up a position with UNESCO in Paris. He was to be away for only two years but he is still there.
By the 60s many of the original members were back home so they decided to regroup and revive Solidra. This push is attributed to S. B. Peters who had come back from England as well. One of the goals of the organization was to encourage people in the arts and so it was only natural that they would begin giving awards to aspiring artists. The Solidra Circle Award for Literary Arts was later renamed the Wole Soyinka Solidra Award for Literature & Drama. The story goes that they wanted to give the man the award but he suggested they use his name instead to encourage younger artists. The Solidra Circle is probably the first organization to recognize the Nobel Laureate this way and the first I found was presented to the author, Fred Agbeyegbe, in 1993.
The Solidra Circle also encouraged children. There were awards and certificates for children who showed an interest in and a talent for the arts. I remember winning once or twice for my sketches. I was decent and it was encouraging for a young child to receive such a public display of acknowledgement. Not sure if being related to the founding fathers had any influence but it couldn’t hurt and they were true to their goals, encouraging established as well as young and upcoming artists that showed talent.
The illustrious membership of the Solidra Circle reads like an honors roll. It includes noted pediatrician, Dr. Bolaji Ajenifuja; their Brazilian liaison, Paul Babalola Bamgbose-Martins; insurance man, Banky Braithwaite; physician, Dr. Femi Bucknor; lawyer, Bimpe Idowu; medical statistician, Dr. Babalola Dada (late); gynecologist, Dr. Bose Emanuel; Chief Abiola Johnson; Lola Joseph; Dr. Yemisi Kuforiji; Bola Marquis; Accountant Obaweya; an Ifa scholar, Johnny Ogundipe (late); his brother, an oil businessman, Joe Ogundipe; Mr. Oguntoye; one of the first cardiologists in Nigeria, Professor Okuwobi (late); artist, Paul Salu; Engineer Santos; real estate developer, Egedio Isidro de Souza (late); C. O. Thomas, who lives in London and works in Brussels; lawyer, Mr. Telemi Toye; Army Major Viatonu; and many more.
Today, the founding fathers are retired; Justice (rtd.), Chief Paul Atilade lives in Lagos, he recently launched a Gospel booklet called ‘Divine Healing Power’, Mr. Fola Sogbamimu lives in London, and Mr. Yemi Lijadu lives in Paris. Sadly, Mr. Lale Lipede is no longer with us. But we the families, the extended families, the recipients, the families of the recipients and indeed the people of the great nation of Nigeria, raise our glasses to the vision of these great men who made the decision and dared to be different. And because of them, today there are many artists out there, young and old, who count the Solidra Award as one of the critical awards they received along the way in their careers.
We say to the Founding Fathers and all the members of the Solidra Circle, “The Extended Family of the Solidra Circle Lagos has watched your progress over the years and considers your efforts commendable and deserving of acknowledgement and to that extent we confer on you the Lifetime Achievement Award for Visionary Leadership in Society, Literary, and Drama.”
Where is the Solidra Circle today? A meeting was held on Sunday, October 21, 2012, at the Yoruba Tennis Club, Lagos, and another is scheduled for the first Sunday in November, 2012. Members are currently inviting sons and younger members to join, on condition that they have the same level of enthusiasm and commitment. For example, Olakitan de Souza, the son of Egedio Isidro de Souza, is the current secretary, having succeeded Seyi Joseph, the son of Lola Joseph.
In the past, membership was limited to no more than 20 but it is now being opened up to interested and worthy individuals. Even though the last award was presented two years ago, the Solidra Circle is being revived again and this year marks their 65th year anniversary. There are talks of kicking off a lectures series in as early as the summer of 2013 so respected individuals can share their knowledge and expertise and a few people have already indicated interest. As Paul says, “The next chapter of Solidra Circle will be even better than the first.”
I would like to thank Justice (rtd.) Chief Paul Atilade, and Messrs. Yemi Lijadu and Fola Sogbamimu for their generosity in time, effort and attention and their patience in contributing to this article. They are all octogenarians and I had the wonderful privilege and honor of having several charming international phone conversations with each of them. This article could not have been written without them.