Music coordinator singing the blues &mdash but is far from sad

Ask Raya Zion why she volunteers her time to the To Life festival, and she forgoes any platitudes about bringing the Jewish community together. Rather, she says simply, “I like parties.”

As volunteer music coordinator and stage manager for Palo Alto’s annual Jewish street fair, Zion helps get the party started. She books the bands, then makes sure they stay on schedule. It may sound technical, but Zion is much more than a mere timekeeper: She’s an Israel-born music lover with the heart of a rock star.

Or at least the heart of a blues singer.

Zion, 46, happens to be the lead vocalist for the Tribal Blues Band, which entertains the surly crowds at the Sea Horse Saloon in Pacifica and similar fine establishments. But she’s putting her own music career on hold — along with everything else — to put together an exciting line-up for this year’s To Life festival.

That includes bands such as My 8th Day (a rock outfit consisting of Orthodox spiritual leaders like Rabbi Yossi Marcus of Chabad in San Mateo), Mah Tovu and Hip Hop Shabbat. For the Seniors’ Stage, Zion has booked several popular acts.

How does Zion know what sort of music will work? “I have a grasp of what people like to hear and what touches them,” says the Foster City resident, who booked the entertainment last year too. “I can go in and out of a lot of different communities.”

That’s putting it mildly. Born in Israel to an Arabic-speaking Syrian mother and Ladino-speaking father, Zion got the best of all worlds, culturally, linguistically and musically. Her parents exposed her to Mizrahi music; her siblings turned her on to Elvis Presley. And she on her own discovered the Rolling Stones.

“I saw ‘Gimme Shelter’ at 10 and fell in love with Mick Jagger,” she says, laughing. “That’s what I listened to. I’ve always done a mean imitation of Mick, with the chicken-walk and the lips.”

The Zion family moved to New York in the early 1970s, but Raya returned to Israel to spend some of her teen years on a kibbutz. She rejoined her parents in California and has been in the Bay Area ever since.

She went on to study business and psychology, and enjoyed a career in the field of industrial organizational psychology. For the last several years she worked with the San Mateo Labor Council on job development. She has a teenage daughter.

But music was never too far away. Zion has served on the program committee of the Jewish Music Festival. Her friendship with former To Life director Stephanie Brown brought her on board last year as music booker and stage manager.

Working with To Life and being in a band are just part of her musical activities. For the last two years, Zion has also co-hosted a radio show, “The Jewish Music Alternative,” on KZSU/90.1 FM, Stanford University radio. She’s an eclectic DJ, spinning everything from modern Israeli hip-hop to straight-up klezmer.

For someone who grew up in a Sephardic environment, Zion has universal tastes when it comes to Jewish music. She relies on that to find something for everyone at To Life. “All Jewish music touches my soul,” she says.

And for those who question this Ladino-speaking sabra’s appreciation for all forms of Jewish music, she adds for good measure: “Some of my best friends are Ashkenazi.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.