|Irvan J. Perez|
December 29, 1923|
Louisiana, United States
January 8, 2008|
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
|Occupation||Isleño décima singer and woodcarver|
Irván J. Pérez (December 29, 1923 – January 8, 2008), who was sometimes known as "Pooka", was an American Isleño décima singer and woodcarver, as well as a leading advocate for the language and culture of the Isleños of Louisiana.
Perez was known for singing traditional décimas, a traditional narrative song which is sung in ten line stanzas. The origins of many of Perez's songs could be traced to Spain and the Canary Islands during the Middle Ages. Other decimas were written by Perez to preserve the distinct Isleño language and culture in Louisiana.
Perez was considered the best décima singer in the Western Hemisphere. He was also one of the United States' and the world's few remaining native speakers of the Isleños dialect. The Isleños dialect is a combination of old formal Spanish, 18th-century maritime Spanish and influences of Louisiana's better known Cajun French.
Perez was born on December 29, 1923. He was a native of Delacroix Island, Louisiana, where he grew up with both his nuclear and extended family. He spoke very little English until he began attending grade school. His grandfather, Mimiro Perez, lost over $9,000 when the banks went out of business during the Great Depression. Perez's father, Serafin Perez, taught him how to sing the traditional décimas and to carve decoy ducks. Perez's carvings were used in hunting, as well as art. Serafin Perez lost his home, as well as eighty decoys, when Hurricane Betsy devastated Louisiana in 1965.
When World War II broke out, Perez dropped out of high school and enlisted in the United States Army. He served in the Pacific during the war and returned to southern Louisiana after it ended. He found work at the Kaiser Aluminum factory in Chalmette, Louisiana, from 1950 to 1975. He later earned his high school general equivalency degree.
In addition to his father's oral traditions, Perez learned some of the décima songs through five local Isleño Louisiana dance halls. The dance halls would often allow the singing of traditional décimas in between other musical genres. The subjects of Perez's décimas varied widely, ranging from lost love to hurricanes to fishing to the plight of modern Isleños culture.
Perez was considered by experts to be the world's best singer of the traditional décima. Researchers and music experts visited Perez's home in Delacroix Island from around the world in order to study the Isleño language, décimas, and culture. Among Perez's more noted researchers was Samuel Armistead of the University of California, Davis, who documented and recorded his Old and New Worlds décimas, whose origins ranged from 16th-century Spain and the Canary Islands to the 20th-century Louisiana Bayou. He was also often visited by Canarian and Spanish researchers, sociologists and cultural anthropologists who were interested in Perez's efforts to preserve his culture through his music.
Perez, who was known for his high pitched, tenor voice, which many believed was perfect for singing décimas, performed at many well known events throughout the United States during his career. He was featured in the 1999 PBS series River of Song: A Musical Journey. Audio recordings of his songs are kept at the Louisiana Division of the Arts' Folklife in Education Project. Perez performed at the Wolf Trap National Folk Festival, Carnegie Hall and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
In addition to his décima, Perez was an expert woodcarver of decoys and realistic looking songbirds and water fowl from cypress roots. Many of his works were sold to support his family, while others have been displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Perez was a recipient of a 1991 National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the United States government's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
Perez performed his décimas for King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía of Spain during their visit to Jackson, Mississippi in 2001. The Spanish Monarchs were in Mississippi to visit "The Majesty of Spain" art exhibit at the time. Perez also made several trips to the Canary Islands over the years, where he was often honored by both residents and the government of the islands. He also served as the president of the Canary Island Descendants Association.
Perez's wife, Louise Perez, whom he had been married to for 64 years, died on June 7, 2005, shortly before Hurricane Katrina struck the state. Louise was a well known expert in Isleño cuisine. Perez lost his home when Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana that same year. He also lost irreplaceable recordings of his father's songs, as well as most of his woodworking tools.
Perez remained active in the arts until the end of his life. He sang at a public concert just three weeks before his death and carved one of his ducks the day he died. He suffered a heart attack at his home in Poydras, Louisiana. He died later that day at the age of 85 at Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans on January 8, 2008.
His funeral was held on January 11, at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Saint Bernard Parish, Louisiana. Perez's funeral mass was the first held at the church since its restoration following Hurricane Katrina. Perez was buried in St. Bernard Catholic Cemetery. He was survived by four daughters, 10 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and a great-great-granddaughter.
Perez was one of the last of the Isleños décimas singers. There are a few dozen native Isleños speakers left in Louisiana, but almost no one in the community can sing the décimas. The government of the Canary Islands declared Perez the "last of the decima singers" following his death and dedicated a memorial Mass to him in January 2008.
- Sullivan, Patricia (2008-02-19). "Irvan J. Perez, 85; singer worked to preserve the Isleños language". The Washington Post. Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 2013-01-28. Retrieved 2008-03-02.
- "NEA National Heritage Fellowships: Irván Pérez". www.arts.gov. National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved 2017-12-05.
- Warren, Bob (2008-01-12). "Irvan Perez, keeper of Isleno culture". New Orleans Times Picayune. NOLA.com. Retrieved 2008-03-05.[permanent dead link]
- Sullivan, Patricia (2008-01-17). "Irván Pérez, 85; Singer of Décimas Preserved Isleños Culture, Dialect". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2008-03-05.
- "NEA National Heritage Fellowships 1991". www.arts.gov. National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved 2017-12-05.
- Campbell, Cynthia V. (2008-01-20). "Folk artist Irvan Perez remembered". The Advocate (Baton Rouge).