Irván Pérez, 85; Singer of Décimas Preserved Isleños Culture, Dialect

Singer and wood carver Irv¿n J. P¿rez holds a decoy he made, which was saved after Katrina destroyed his home.
Singer and wood carver Irv¿n J. P¿rez holds a decoy he made, which was saved after Katrina destroyed his home. (Courtesy Of Npr News)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 17, 2008

Irván J. Pérez, 85, whose haunting a cappella songs in the disappearing Isleños 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.

Mr. Pérez, a 1991 winner of the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, sang décimas, distinctive narrative songs in 10-line stanzas, that recounted fishing stories, disclosed raunchy misbehavior of spouses and wryly reported the problems of working for welfare using an unreliable truck. Some of the songs date from the Middle Ages and others Mr. Pérez wrote to preserve his community's unusual history.

Mr. Pérez 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 décimas in the Americas and one of the world's few remaining speakers of the dialect, a combination of 18th-century maritime Spanish, antiquated formal Spanish and snippets of Louisiana's Cajun French.

Known as "Pooka," Mr. Pérez had a high, fluttery tenor voice perfect for singing décimas from 16th-century Spain and 20th-century Louisiana, which offered advice from those who survived hurricanes, unfaithful lovers and hard times.

"If you ever heard Irván's singing, you'd never forget it," said Allison Pena, cultural anthropologist at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.

Many people heard him, at Carnegie Hall, Wolf Trap's 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 Mr. Pérez worked assiduously to preserve. He welcomed Spanish and Canarian researchers at his home and assisted Samuel Armistead of the University of California at Davis in documenting the words to the old and new décimas.

"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, Mr. Pérez 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 Pérez, lost a fortune, $9,000, when the banks failed during the Great Depression. His father, Serafin Pérez, who taught him to sing and carve wooden ducks used as hunting decoys and art objects, lost his home and 80 decoys in 1965's Hurricane Betsy. When Hurricane Katrina, which Louisianans simply call "the storm" came through, Mr. Pérez lost his home, recordings of his father's singing and most of his woodworking tools. Through it all, he absorbed the décimas like the bowls of shrimp jambalaya and plates of 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 décima 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 from the diaspora began:

"Farewell, impossible Spain!

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