The folk music of Irván Pérez kept alive the fading language and culture of southern Louisiana's Isleños -- his signature décimas, a cappella narratives rendered in ten-line stanzas, captured for posterity a way of life slowly but surely erased by the march of time. Born on Delacroix Island, LA, in 1923, Pérez was a descendant of Canary Island-born immigrants who colonized five communities across the St. Bernard Parish swamplands between 1778 and 1783 in an effort to stem the tide of British encroachment on Spanish land -- dubbed "Isleños" (i.e., "Islanders"), for more than two centuries they made their living as shrimpers, oystermen, trappers, and bootleggers, developing a native dialect fusing elements of 18th-century maritime Spanish, formal Spanish, and Cajun French. From his father, Serafin, Pérez learned to sing as well as carve wooden ducks sold as both hunting decoys and art objects. After dropping out of high school to serve in World War II, he worked in a nearby aluminum plant, supplementing his income by fishing, hunting, and trapping muskrats. Through it all, Pérez collected the myriad décimas that together comprise an oral history of the Isleños people spanning from 16th century Spain to postwar Louisiana -- considered the oldest Spanish-language musical tradition, the décimas were for decades a staple of Delacroix Island dancehalls and social gatherings, handed down from generation to generation, but by the 1960s Pérez was among the few remaining practitioners of the tradition, performing the songs in a high, feathery tenor that further underscored the music's distinct otherness.
After Hurricane Betsy caused catastrophic damage across the Gulf Coast in September 1965, Pérez followed the path of other displaced Isleños, relocating his wife, Louise, and their children further north. After retiring from the aluminum plant in 1975, he made a living carving and painting decoys, and years later some made their way into a Smithsonian Institution exhibition. A relatively unknown figure until the final decades of his life, Pérez gradually earned international recognition via performances at events including the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife, the Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival, the Louisiana Folklife Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In 1991, he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, and assisted academic researchers from across the globe in their efforts to study and document the Isleños culture. Pérez reached the zenith of his renown after appearing in the PBS documentary River of Song: A Musical Journey, later performing at Carnegie Hall and recording an LP, Spanish Dècimas from St. Bernard Parish. He also made numerous trips to the Canary Islands, earning a hero's welcome from legislators and residents alike. Pérez lost his home, recordings of his father, and the majority of his woodworking tools when Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf region in late summer of 2005 -- the storm was also a devastating blow to what remained of the Isleños population, with only a few dozen native speakers still alive to preserve its traditions. Pérez suffered a fatal heart attack on January 8, 2008. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi