Local singer mines rich history of Sephardic music

Kat Parra is making up for lost time. More than 30 years ago, the classically trained flutist put her music career in the background as she worked to raise her two sons as a single mother. Now that her sons are out of college, Parra has once again put her passion for music front and center in her life.

Since 2006 — when Parra released her first CD as a Latin jazz vocalist after quitting her job as a graphic designer at Cisco Systems — the San Jose native has quickly captured the attention of critics and audiences alike, winning awards for her three highly acclaimed CDs. Her vocal influences cross boundaries and range from Afro-Cuban, to Brazil, Peru and the Middle East. While many who hear her music assume Parra has Spanish or Latin American heritage, she was raised in a Jewish family, singing Hebrew songs in the choir at Temple Emanu-El in San Jose.

Kat Parra

Along her musical journey, Parra, 50, has been drawn to centuries-old Sephardic music, and has introduced audiences to the little-known sounds, history and culture of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, where they lived through the expulsions in the late-15th century. Sephardic music is sung in Ladino, the nearly extinct language spoken by Spanish Jews, that combines Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic and some Turkish.

While her first two recordings included a few Sephardic songs, “Dos Amantes,” released in 2010, was exclusively Sephardic music performed with the Sephardic Music Experience.

Her new CD “Las Aventuras de Pasion!” — set for official release Aug. 14 — includes five Sephardic songs, from love ballads to a traditional lullabye, and several original compositions.

Parra has several upcoming local performances. On July 28, she and her band will headline the Benicia Jazz Festival. On Aug. 11, she’ll perform at the San Jose Jazz Festival, and on Aug. 23, she plays in Santa Cruz at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center.

Parra’s attraction to Sephardic music has deepened over the last decade, after her family discovered their Sephardic heritage tracing back to Portugal, on her mother’s side of the family.

In a recent phone interview with j., Parra recalled that on a trip to Spain in 2004, she combed shops looking for Sephardic music. “I was completely bowled over by the beauty of the melodies,” she said.  

Over the last six years, she has received four grants from the S.F.-based Zellerbach Family Foundation to research Sephardic music. She also received grants from the East Bay Fund for Artists and the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music.

Her musical interpretations blend traditional Sephardic songs with more contemporary influences, from Latin jazz to rhythms from the Caribbean and South America.

“I did not want to just spit out what I heard. I wanted to create music that was more accessible to a wider audience,” she said.

“To this day, I am enthralled by this period of time when Jews and Muslims lived harmoniously for a period of time in Spain. There’s a rich history that accompanies this music.”

On her new CD, the song “La Comida de La Manyana” recounts a daughter telling her disapproving mother about a man she longs to marry. It’s a conversation that could take place today, Parra said.  The captivating sparse arrangement by Parra and Michael Spiro was inspired by a Cuban rhumba, Parra said. It’s a lyrical pairing of vocals interwoven with intricate percussion.

Parra is particularly proud of the instrumentation of “Yo M’Enamori D’Un Aire,” (“I Fell in Love With a Breeze”). The arrangement by Parra and Wayne Wallace includes cello and tabla and opens with the haunting sounds of a shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute.

On “Morenika,” a traditional folkloric song , Parra’s voice is rich yet delicate. It is among the rare Sephardic songs that has been traced to pre-expulsion Spain, Parra has learned. More commonly the songs are traced to later periods in post-expulsion locales in the Ottoman Empire.

Parra said that after performances, many people tell her they had never heard of Sephardic music and intend to learn more about it. “That’s the big win,” she said. “When you can spark someone’s curiosity, thats awesome.” n

For information on Kat Parra‘s upcoming performances, see www.katparra.com.