Award-Winning Nigerian Canadian Jazz Saxophonist | Songwriter | Arts Manager
Recipient of the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award (2022) and the Calgary Mayor’s New Canadian Artist Award (2021), Perpie (Perpetual Awele Atife) is a Nigerian-Canadian contemporary African jazz and folk artist with a touch of storytelling. A saxophonist, singer, composer and producer with early exposure to Afrobeat music by Fela Kuti and country music by Don Williams and Dolly Parton. Her music is empowered by a little bit of so many different forms including Western and Southern African folk music and traditional musical practices, gospel, smooth jazz and soft rock. She is mostly loved for her rich and lyrical tone on the soprano, alto and tenor saxophones.
Exploring themes of her African heritage, the history, Igbo Landing of 1803, the power of community, hard work, grace and prayer, the first single from her upcoming debut instrumental and vocal album titled “The Landing (1803)” was released in January 2023. Starting off with a simple arpeggiated opening and growing into a strong harmonic and rhythmic blend to commemorate black heroes of Igbo history - a story of true, heart-wrenching demonstration of courage and resistance to slavery as captured free men took control of the slave ship, drowned their captors before proceeding to drown themselves. The Album will be out late Summer, 2023.
Headline artist for the Canadian Jazz Festival (2021), featured as saxophonist with the 8-piece band for the 2022 Calgary Stampede Grandstand Show, Perpie has also headlined major shows including the Ethnik Festivals, JazzYYC Summer Fest and the Bell Live Series amongst others. As a curator, she has hosted multiple sold out concerts including the Ije Live 2022 concert at Studio Bell, Home of the National Music Centre and garnered rave reviews.
My artistic expression is largely influenced by my growing discovery of my heritage, the rich history of the African people, the power of community, the impact of poverty, pain and the grace - all of which reflect my life's journey and realities.
Born in Kaduna and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, her music has been described as ‘soulful’, ‘rich’, ’radiating beautiful human emotions’ and this has taken her across major cities in Nigeria, England, China and Canada.
Music is a very spiritual practice for me and when I sin or play the saxophone, I try to convey the warmth and emotion that I experience to create that similar deep, intimate and uplifting experience for my listeners.
From one generation of hard working, resilient and resourceful people to another, I stand on the strength of noble heroes, warriors and kings, past and living, including the ones stripped of their royalty and pride, captured into slavery, buried in the oceans, sold to strange lands, through the ‘Point of No Return’. Even today, despite the failure of its leadership and its multi-ethnic and cultural diversity, Nigeria has grown to a federation with 36 autonomous states and a Federal Capital Territory, three of which I have strong lineage ties. I was born in, raised in and am an indigene of - Kaduna, Lagos and Delta states respectively. I acknowledge that this diversity, coupled with the numerous challenges, has constructed the artistic framework upon which my music thrives.
My music explores themes of love, community, pain, faith and grace…. It’s a bouquet that reflects my experience and childhood.
What initially drew you to the performance medium and the saxophone?
I come from a really humble background in Nigeria where my mom raised us all by herself. There was a turning point when I couldn’t afford my science career anymore and had to move on. Honestly, the saxophone was just what was available to me at the time.
There was an opportunity in the music department in my school and it seemed like an easy progression to delve into something new. It was a simple opening and I didn’t know how expensive or inexpensive it would be. I couldn’t afford my own instrument at the time, so it was very kind of one of my friends to offer me theirs. It turned out that there was also a scholarship at the school and I took it up! That’s when my whole life changed.
That’s how it all started. It wasn’t the case of me falling in love with the saxophone specifically right away but more so of what was readily available to me. It was my escape from being unable to get through science school which led to so much more.
Music has become the expression that draws me inward and outward with others and with the community.
Are there underlying themes in your work? What message is the message you are hoping to communicate to the audience?
I come from a very close-knit and small community, so my biggest themes are based on love and community support, as well as themes of pain, struggle, and the painful history of the Black race. All of this combined has become my artistry. It all stems from my childhood, my experiences to even just moving to Canada. So taking those life experiences and being able to share these stories through my music is really important to me.
The biggest underlying theme for me has been grace, which spreads out into the theme of community.
I recognize that I am a product of grace and recognize that it has kept me going. It keeps me growing as well, despite my inabilities or my insufficiencies in several ways. It's always that main underlying theme of grace but then it spreads out into the bigger picture of community.
The power of community and the beauty of community that has been by my side back in Nigeria and now here in Canada.
We gather. We are very used to gathering together.
And then, there are themes of African idioms, themes of African folk music and folk storytelling. The communal aspect is a very strong and impactful moment for me and the reason we all gather is based on where I come from.
That's why I am also very passionate about live music. It has always been my outlet and my reason to bring people together.
Who has been your biggest inspiration and support system helping you get to where you are now?
It’s massive! It took more than a village. Having a support system is just huge. Back home in Nigeria, people would constantly be cheering you on, so my first couple of years in Canada weren’t easy. I felt extremely alone, not even being able to realize if art even existed for me here. I didn’t know if there was a place for me here to continue my passions. In the beginning it seemed like there was nothing artistic about Calgary and there was nothing that I could really speak to.
Receiving the 2021 CCIS New Canadian Artist Award really helped bring me some exposure. It led me to meet even more people and get immersed in the larger and stronger music community here. Networking really helped with getting more performance opportunities: I got to perform at the Jazz Festival and the National Music Centre’s Bell Live Series at the King Eddy (2021) for the Bell Live Series. I became an Artist in Residence at the Calgary Central Library as well.
The sold out show happened because my entire community came together.
All of these opportunities came together fluidly once I got the start here.
It took some time but it was really the community here that made the difference. The moment I discovered the community and showed up, I came out in a way here.
I came out of my shell here finally.
Just the opportunity of receiving the award and getting the exposure helped me realize and see exactly how big the community is here. My last show being sold out wasn’t due to me having the best marketing team/marketing plan or because I knew all of the people who showed up for the concert.
I literally pulled the entire Nigerian, Black community and a lot of it was word of mouth, them telling everyone they knew. We sold out and had more people than the capacity trying to get in.
So it's that support system that was direct and indirect. There were folks that didn’t know me but would hear about me on the radio and would advocate for me. The sentiment alone was just priceless to me. That is definitely fuelling my art and keeping me going. It’s been an inspiration for me, to be able to keep doing this for them.
We are looking at doing the upcoming 2023 show at the Bella Concert Hall, which is twice the size of the National Music Centre. The inspiration behind that is the success of last year and the community it brought together. I really just want to do that again.
I'm excited to bring the beautiful and diverse community together again and be able to share my work, music and share the space with other people again.
How did you get involved with ICAI?
At the time, I was focused on looking for much needed exposure opportunities. This again just stems from my love and my big longing for the community aspect. I took the Rozsa Foundation Arts Management Program (RAMP) with the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business Executive Education and then found other graduates who are doing other things to bring artists together and especially immigrant artists together.
I found ICAI to be a really beautiful community of artists.
Toyin Oladele was one of them and meeting her really excited me. I loved the idea of learning from her and seeing the kind of work ICAI is doing, and most of all to be a part of the community. I am passionate about providing support where I can and to also feel and enjoy the support and the love in return.
Being a part of an artist community is really at the core of what drew me into ICAI.
The months spent in the Immigrant Arts Mentorship Program were full of life changing encounters. Having a mentor (Meghan Goguen) that I could sit with every week and chat about my worries, my fears, my dreams, my goals and just have her listen to me and make suggestions, or even recommend me for awards and write recommendation letters, or just come up with a crazy idea and encourage me to go for it was incredible.
That mentorship experience meant so much to me, giving me companionship above all else.
The artist's journey can be very lonely sometimes, especially when you dream and your dreams are always bigger than you.
Having someone with whom you can always share that journey with and drink from their peace, having someone who genuinely has faith in you is just pure and for that I am forever grateful.
I could have never paid for that.
Tell us more about your album in the works!
The album will be out soon! This album is also a collection of my childhood experiences and the love of my community, as well as a little bit of pain and a tribute to Black history.
It's a 360 collection of who I am.
With the album, my goal is to basically share my journey. That’s actually the title of the album: Journey Through Grace. It is my native name, which represents grace. It also means journey.
It is a blend of journey and grace.
It’s a way to combine different sides of me in music; my writing, my ideas, things that have impacted me. There is a strong presence of folk sounds and folk tunes. There are also pure instrumental jazz compositions, as well as gentle contemporary African sounds with a touch of spoken word storytelling.
So this album is hopefully that reflection that captures my journey to an extent. I believe every one of us is on a journey. We’re merely on different paths or different levels or directions but what connects us is the fact that we are all on a journey.
I hope this album helps to connect us on our individual journeys.
I just wanted to do something that captures where I am at the moment and reflect where I am coming from. So anything that comes out after that is focused on the grounding moment of where I am. It’s a journey that is reflecting backward.
It will be my debut album so I am really looking forward to it coming out. I released the first single out of it this January and so far we’ve received about 60k streams on Spotify! We performed it last year at the concert, which was very well received so I thought it would be the first thing that will be out from this upcoming album.
What are some of the biggest moments of growth in this process?
Working on the album is going great and I am learning a lot in this whole process. So many things have contributed to my growth, from the writing process, to the distribution portion of it all and sharing it to the audience on different platforms, from a live show experience to digital platforms.
Just realizing that music is subjective and it's not going to come across to everyone the same way but also appreciating my growth and learning to give myself grace along the way. Creating personal work and releasing it out into the world can take a life on its own. Feedback can be a double edge sword in this process; it’s almost always very helpful and constructive but at times can break you.
You as an artist are on a journey but the audience doesn't necessarily know what that journey is. Their whole perception is what they hear in the moment.
So as a writer and as a composer, it’s really important for me to realize room for improvement and to also understand where I am right now and to remind myself that this is all a part of my journey.
My growth is tied to knowing the business side of things, understanding people’s perceptions and the process of interaction but also having a good grasp on my own capabilities and putting that into perspective as I grow. So for me, it's a learning curve and the process of understanding how the industry works. Learning how to navigate and how to make the most of what is available to me.
I am here right now and that doesn't mean that I'll be here tomorrow, so I want to make the best of it and learn as much as I can.
I only just started. It’s only my first album and I am really excited about finally getting it out into the world. There was a time I was really wanting to hold back on it and try and build my social presence or write differently but I feel that now is the time to release it, also in order for me to breathe new things.
How do you see your art evolving? Where are you hoping to continue your musical ventures and achieve in the future?
Music is all I am right now. Once the album is out, it’s fair to say that I will be in need of taking a break and a breather to reflect and collect myself.
But I have a major concert coming up that is a part of the IJE Live that I started last year. It’s a 600 seat hall that I’m hoping I’ll fill for a bigger experience of music. Last year we accomplished a full 300 seat space so I’m really excited to double that number this year! We sold out the last show and more people were still trying to get in, so this year I am just really looking forward to a bigger and a more immersive and uplifting experience. That’s the bigger project. That is what’s in my head every single minute, blowing my head up. It’s what I trust in God for.
What is your success mantra?
Over the last couple years, I’ve consciously felt a need to be more centred. This might sound too spiritual but I feel that without being grounded along my centre and through my source and core of inspiration, the only time I ever break through is when I come back to that centre and am able to reflect.
Every moment away from my centre creates a struggle to honour and nurture it. I know that I am capable of accomplishing bigger things when I am present and come back to it. It creates success and a bigger peace of mind, even when things aren’t going great. I am more calm when I am more centred on my faith. It’s been keeping me moving forward. I saw the power of this when it played out last year with my performances and saw how that came to flesh and to life - I could literally touch it.
There is more peace and direction when my head is clear. My goal is to always be there and come back to my centre.
I need to keep reminding myself to keep coming back to that place because when life gets too busy and hectic, the worries don’t help the process. When I create the time to have those moments of being able to retreat and just be in that space - things go much smoother because I am calm and collected.
Do you have any additional advice/resources to pass down to other newcomer arts professionals?
It’s tough when you move here and you don’t know anyone. It took me two full years to really break through the initial stages. I felt that music was just over for me. There was a time I’ve almost given up on my practice and thought it’s all just left behind at back home. Somehow it found me again
The advice I would give is… I mean I can’t even tell an artist not to give up on their art because it will always find you. Even if you run away from it and say I’m dropping this and moving on to something else - it will still find you. It’s something you can’t run away from.
I'm not going to say don't give up on your art because even if you think you've given up, you just can't. There is no escaping it.
All of those ideas and thoughts that you had even before you left your country, or what you were working on before, you can still continue and make those things and dreams happen. Just find the community that you connect with and it may be tough at first but just find them. Come out.
You can actually get here and dive into your art, even if it takes a while.
Keep it alive for yourself and find the time to breathe. Give yourself permission. Give yourself time to just blend and grow and be a part of the community here. It’s hard but you’ll find your way.