Sephardic Chanukah concert celebrates the Festival of Luces

There will be dreidels at Kat Parra’s Chanukah concert later this month. Just don’t expect “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.”

Parra performs Sephardic music, sung mostly in Ladino, the lost language of the Sephardi Jews. Hence the name of her band: the Sephardic Music Experience, and hence no overworked Chan-ukah chestnuts in her set.

Parra and her band play Berk-eley’s La Peña Cultural Center on Dec. 21.

Sephardic music, which stems largely from the poems and melodies of Spain’s pre-1492 Jewish community, falls right in Parra’s comfort zone. She has made her living as a purveyor of Latin music, singing everything from Cuban charanga and Brazilian samba to Afro-Peruvian ballads.

Yes, there is such a thing as Afro-Peruvian.

“Sephardic Jews, like all Jews, have spread out far and wide,” says Parra, a San Jose native who now lives in Oakland. “There’s so much to [Sephardic music]. The melodies are just beautiful. I want to maintain the integrity of the music by keeping the language and melodies intact.”

Not that she comes on stage with a lute or lyre. Parra fronts a thoroughly modern band, grounded in Latin percussion and boasting contemporary jazz-flavored arrangements, even on those ancient melodies. “I’m a firm believer in evolving the music,” she says, “and not keeping it stuck in the Middle Ages.”

Parra prefers secular Sephardic songs, as opposed to the more religious. She says the pieces, many of which are about love and romance, preserve the character of Jewish life from the Golden Age of Moorish Spain.

After their expulsion from Spain in 1492, the Jews took their folk music and poetry with them to Turkey and Greece. New melodies were often adapted, but some things about Sephardic music never changed.

“A lot of the music survived because of the women,” Parra says. “There are a lot of wedding songs, a lot of romances. When people immigrated to different countries, the husband would go out and work and the wife would stay home, maintain the language and culture and traditions.”

Though her songs vary in style and mood, Parra notes a thread running through them. “There is a theme of strong women defying their mothers, defying traditions because they don’t want their husbands choosing for them.”

In her own story, life seems to have imitated art.

Raised in a Reform household, Parra remembers celebrating Shabbat most Friday nights and singing in her San Jose synagogue choir. Three of her four grandparents were Ashkenazi, but that one-quarter of Sephardic ancestry must have included some powerful genes. She was drawn to all things Latin as a kid, starting with her father’s Sergio Mendes records.

As a high school exchange student in Chile, she locked in her Spanish language skills, as well as met her Chilean husband-to-be. Parra later attended UCLA as a flute major and would have gone on to an earlier music career if not for marrying and having two sons.

This put her music career on hold, and a subsequent divorce pushed her into the corporate world as a graphic designer. But she kept herself in music as a voice student at San Jose State University. One of her teachers, Patti Cathcart (of Tuck & Patti fame), pushed her to find her own unique musical path.

Staring in 2005, Parra devoted all her energies to singing. She became the lead vocalist for a local Latin band, Charanga 9, even as she prepared to do her own thing. She released two solo albums — “Azucar de Amor” and “Birds in Flight” — and later received a grant from the Zellerbach Family Foundation to develop the Sephardic Music Experience.

A CD by the band is due next year. Meanwhile, Parra will continue performing the songs and sharing her love of Sephardic music. Whether it inspires Jewish audience members or not, the music has certainly touched Parra.

“I’ve always been proud of being a Jew,” she says, “but this music made me dig even deeper and made me even more aware.”

The Sephardic Music Experience featuring Kat Parra performs its Chanukah concert 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21 at La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets: $12-$15. Information: (510) 849-2568 or

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.