Margie Perez embodies what it means to be a working artist in New Orleans right now: she plays whenever possible, constantly expanding her reach with a variety of bands and collaborations. Originally a songwriter working in a funk-rock vein, she’s branched into Latin and African music, embracing her roots while reflecting her hometown’s musical diversity. Through it she’s maintained the charm and positivity that makes her a joy to see onstage.
Currently she can be seen as the frontwoman of Muevelo, a vibrant Latin band that plays monthly at the Ace Hotel; the band’s regular shows—which include free dance lessons beforehand—have become a must-see for locals and visitors alike. Her other regular gig, two Mondays monthly at 30/90, featured her regular solo band (the “funky boy band” as she calls them) and her own songs. She’s also in a couple of all-star lineups that play less regularly, including Afro-Cuban Sacred music band Moyuba, the West African-themed Ensemble Fatien and the jam-band supergroup the M&M’s. Also rare, but unmissable, are appearances by N.O.B.A.B.E.—that would be the New Orleans Bad-Ass Bitch Experience—which features 16 of the city’s jazz and R&B women that had its inaugural show at Preservation Hall in 2018. More recently she’s been the featured singer on the local TV show, Spotlight New Orleans with John Calhoun, where she gets to provide musical intros for a wide array of guests.
“I am constantly looking at my calendar,” she says. “I am my own booking person, my own manager and my own therapist. When people ask how I’m doing I say ‘Exhausted, but having fun.’ I’m always trying to get out of my comfort zone and work with great musicians I admire, same as when I first came here 15 years ago.”
Her first visit was actually in 1994, when she was touring with a world beat band and took in Jazz Fest, getting her head turned around by an Allen Toussaint set. After a stay in Los Angeles where she had some success as a backup singer, she moved here permanently 10 years later. “Because I’m not [originally] from here, I’m well aware that I’ll always not ‘be’ from here. But I am here to stay and I want everyone to know that. I decided to become a musician here because of the love I have for the city and for showing it off to people.”
Muevelo came out of her own rediscovery of the Latin music she’d grown up with. Her parents are Cuban immigrants who moved to Washington, DC where she was born. “As my mom cleaned the house she would always play the Fania Allstars and Celia Cruz, so I learned all that by osmosis. They came over in 1959 before the revolution, and they had every intention of staying. So we grew up with Cuban cooking and music, but the area we lived was not very Latin. And that included the language; my parents wanted to be speaking English, so I lost a lot of my Spanish growing up. I’ve been re-learning it now, and conjugating the verbs can be a challenge.” She rediscovered that music for a Celia Cruz tribute show at the Ellis Marsalis Center; her musical partner for that show was saxophonist Brent Rose who now co-leads Muvelho. “Before Katrina there was a big Latin influence. Café Brasil always had Latin bands and a lot of bands were playing, but then it dropped off the radar. Now that’s changing; you can walk down Frenchmen Street and hear a 10-piece band making powerhouse music.”
Given her love for the city, it’s not surprising that Margie Perez has begun working as a tour guide. It’s only lately that a friend convinced her to get the license and work for Historic New Orleans Tours, where she does musically-themed tours. “I have a weird social anxiety thing where I can sing in front of an audience and never get nervous, but when I’m speaking it can be uncomfortable. But I keep in mind that I’m telling stories and there are so many things I want to say to people so I’m just saying them out loud.”
Her various projects haven’t always left room for her to sit down and write songs—a shame, since her last full CD Love is All was a local highlight three years ago. But she has lent her pen to the Per Sister project, where she’s joined other local songwriters (including Sarah Quintana, Lynn Drury and Spirit McIntyre) in lending voice to women who have been incarcerated. The woman she chose to write about (who’d rather her name not be made public) was one who’d gotten a long sentence she hadn’t deserved. “When she was released she had this tenacity and unwavering faith in God, instead of being bitter like she could have been. And that was something I found really inspiring. At the moment I maybe write two songs a year, but when I do I try to make them count.”