The Storytelling Project Perpetual Atife | Photo: Motif Photography November 7, 2023 Perpetual Atife Award-winning saxophonist and vocalist had first music lesson in her 20s Stephen Hunt Calgary saxophonist and vocalist Perpetual Atife might be the only person who found her way into jazz as a result of financial hardships. In fact, when she tells me the story of how she switched from being a Nigerian bio-chemistry student on her way to becoming a medical doctor, to an award-winning Calgary saxophonist on the rise, I think there must be some kind of misunderstanding. Growing up, the alarm clock in her Lagos home was a radio soundtrack curated by her mom. “She would wake us up with Dolly Parton or Jim Reeves or Don Williams,” she says. “You would hear it while you were still dreaming.” Perpie, as she is known, loved music long before she was trained at it. She sang gospel tunes and led the youth music group at church. She listened and danced to music by Fela Kuti, the Nigerian legend, but for her entire childhood, it wasn’t something she considered as a possible career. Instead, she enrolled in science. “Mom was a single mom raising five kids,” she says, adding that being the fourth child, it was difficult to get financial support for school. “I was doing well in chemistry, but funding for it was hard to come by.” One day, she saw an ad for students in the music department, enrolled and was accepted — and it turned out that the program provided scholarships to all students. Perpie decided she might do better in music, since she did not have to worry about fees, so she made the switch and then all her school fees were covered. “About a decade ago, I started music,” she says. “I got my first music lesson when I was in my 20s.” Perpetual Atife with Kevin Anderson, Manager at Steinway Piano Gallery in Calgary, at the 2023 YYC Music Awards. CALGARY CALLING In 2019, Perpie moved to Calgary. “For the first two years, I knew nobody,” she says. It didn’t help that a year after arriving, the pandemic broke out, but eventually she was able to connect with a community of like-minded musicians. By 2021, she was named a Compelling Calgarian by the Calgary Herald and won the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society’s New Canadian Artist Award when she was also an artist in residence at the Calgary Public Library. This past September, she added to those accolades when she won a YYC Music Award for Jazz Recording of the Year, for “The Landing (1803),” the lead track from her debut album Ije-Awele. And as if making a go of a career as a 21st century jazz musician wasn’t enough of a challenge, there was a pandemic to overcome. Her partial solution was to create musical events such as Ije Live with Perpie: The Gathering concert, a trilogy of shows that featured Perpie performing jazz with an orchestra and children’s choir, the last of which took place in late September at the Bella Concert Hall. Her promotional material described the concert by highlighting a quote from Nigerian author Chinua Achebe: “When we gather together in the moonlit village ground, it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.” The concerts, performed in front of audiences of over 500 people, brought big joy to Perpie — and subtly changed the way she performs jazz, which has always been rooted in improvisation. “The music does change when you perform it with an orchestra,” she says. “There’s less room for freedom or spontaneity or improvisation,” she says. “You have to write charts for the orchestra, then stay true to form. It creates a big, rich sound.” THE SOUND That sound might not be performed in a smoky club, but Perpie’s 21st century musical sensibility somehow evokes the jazz clubs of 52nd Street in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, with echoes of John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and Michael Brecker — with a dash of Nigerian legend Fela Kuti blended in with gospel. It’s also another remarkable example of how Calgary’s music scene has shape-shifted dramatically over the past 10 years. There’s jazz, a burgeoning R&B and hip-hop scene, featuring artists like Sinzere, Tisssa Rahim, Sergeant X Comrade and many, many more. If Calgary truly is a music city, then Perpie’s rapid rise ought to be Exhibit A. Ije-Awele came about through the support of Calgary Arts Development and was recorded at both the OCL Studios and the National Music Centre, shaped through performances at venues like the King Eddy, the Ironwood Grill and the YYC Jazz Festival. Perpie’s musical journey is also instructive in how one artist has managed to navigate all the stuff life throws at you and still manage to find ways to live a creative life. “I create a target for myself,” she says. “Having a creative target helps me to stay creative. That (Bella) concert was an example — I don’t wait for gigs; these concerts that I produce, they give me something to work towards. “Having a musical network helps me to stay creative,” she adds. “I want to continue to evolve as an artist personally.” Creative Ecosystem And why does it matter? She could have just stayed in chemistry and become a physician. “If I feel there’s a void, I want to fill that void,” she says. “…That’s why I try to build a creative ecosystem, continue to fill the gap, fuel that desire to express myself through creativity.” What she may not have seen coming, growing up in Lagos being woken up by Dolly on the radio each morning, was that she’d find a musical community in Calgary that fits what she does. “I’ve seen most of my growth, my most creative output here,” she says. “Calgary is such a positive creative hub and a crucial part of my growth. “There are opportunities, diversity of audiences, of musicians,” she adds. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with different musicians [here],” she adds. “…They’ve made room in their hearts to integrate my music. Having musicians to create that music with you is special.” About the Storytelling Project The Storytelling Project raises awareness about Calgarians who, by living creative lives, are making Calgary a better city, effecting positive change and enriching others’ lives. Have a story to share? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.