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Singer worked to preserve fading Islenos language

Washington Post

Irvan J. Perez, whose haunting a cappella songs in the disappearing Islenos language told tales of fishing, trapping and life in the swamps of southern Louisiana, died after a heart attack Jan. 8 at Tulane University Medical Center in New Orleans. He was 85.

Perez, a 1991 winner of the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, sang decimas, distinctive narrative songs in 10-line stanzas. Some of the songs date from the Middle Ages and others Perez wrote to preserve his community’s unusual history.

Perez was a descendant of Canary Islanders who settled in the St. Bernard Parish swamplands of Louisiana in the late 1700s.

He was considered the best singer of decimas in the Americas and one of the world’s few remaining speakers of the Islenos dialect, a combination of 18th-century maritime Spanish, antiquated formal Spanish and snippets of Louisiana’s Cajun French.

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Known as “Pooka,” Perez had a high, fluttery tenor voice perfect for singing decimas from 16th-century Spain and 20th-century Louisiana. The decimas offered advice from those who survived hurricanes, unfaithful lovers and hard times.

“If you ever heard Irvan’s singing, you’d never forget it,” said Allison Pena, a cultural anthropologist at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.

Many people heard him during appearances at Carnegie Hall, the Wolf Trap National Folk Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He appeared in a 1999 PBS series, “River of Song: A Musical Journey,” which also features an audio clip of his singing, as does the Louisiana Division of the Arts’ Folklife in Education Project.

Academic researchers from around the world went to his home on Delacroix Island to study the language, songs and culture that Perez worked assiduously to preserve. He welcomed Spanish and Canarian researchers at his home and assisted Samuel Armistead of UC Davis in documenting the words to the old and new decimas.

“He was an absolutely marvelous informant,” said Armistead, who has researched and written about the three tiny remnants of Spanish-speaking communities in Louisiana. “Here’s a guy who grew up with the perspective of a muskrat trapper or shrimp trawler who didn’t know English until he went to school. . . . As soon as I talked to him, I said, ‘Wow, this guy might as well have a university degree.’ ”

A native of Delacroix Island, about 30 miles and a world away from the hustle of New Orleans, Perez grew up with his immediate and extended family around him.

He saw plenty of hard times but “took almost everything in stride,” said one of his four daughters, Carol Nunez.

His grandfather, Mimiro Perez, lost a fortune, $9,000, when the banks failed during the Depression. His father, Serafin Perez, who taught him to sing and carve ducks used as hunting decoys and art objects, lost his home and 80 decoys in 1965’s Hurricane Betsy.

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When Hurricane Katrina, which Louisianans simply call “the storm,” came through, Perez lost his home, recordings of his father’s singing and most of his woodworking tools. Through it all, he absorbed the decimas as he did the shrimp jambalaya and crabmeat casserole his wife cooked.

His education in the art came at five local dance halls, where, between the tunes on Saturday nights, someone would sing a decima about his brother-in-law, an aging playboy who never grew up. Another sang the humorous tale of a crab fisherman in February, bedeviled by bees and attacked by a partner who thought he was rabid. One began:

“Farewell, impossible Spain!

Your sons are leaving you

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to look for work in unknown lands.

In Brazil, Buenos Aires,

Mexico, Chile and Panama;

Without work, every day,

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they are departing.”

Perez, who dropped out of high school to serve in the Army during World War II, fought in the Pacific and went back to southern Louisiana. He worked at the Kaiser Aluminum plant in Chalmette, La., from 1950 to 1975. Eventually, he earned a high school general equivalency degree. Through it all, he fished, trapped and hunted.

Perez became an expert wood carver, creating realistically textured wild fowl and songbirds from cypress roots. He painted his work with oil pigments that he mixed. Some were decoys, but many were sold to support his family. Some have been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution.


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