I have always told stories through music - now it's words



Ella Leya is a long way from her roots. Rabbi's wife, Hollywood singer and composer, she has now decided to reconnect with those roots with a semi-autobiographical novel, The Orphan Sky. "I was born in the city of Baku, Azerbaijan" says Ella, "built like a virtual amphitheatre over the turquoise waters of the Caspian Sea, with miles of golden-sand, boulevards of cherry trees, surrounded by the austere peaks of the Caucasus Mountains.

"It is the only Muslim-majority country that displays as much respect for the Star of David as it does for The Crescent Moon Symbol."

Ella's childhood was comfortable, cultural and privileged. Members of the Communist Party, her parents nevertheless cared more about their children's intellectual growth than their ideological orientations. Ella and her sister Inna began reading Pushkin and studying classical piano soon after they were old enough to walk.

"My family was Jewish," she says, "and the word 'Jewish' stamped in our passports identified our ethnicity. As for the religion, we had Communism - the state religion that the Soviets forced upon us."

Ella was 12 when her world began to expand. "A tiny music shop opened across the street from my school. Rumour had it that the store sold albums from the black market and the owner was a sorcerer or an American spy. After a few weeks of walking by, I finally worked up the courage and stepped inside. The man in the store wore a turban and leather pants, a combination no one had ever seen before in Baku. A poster of a half-naked lady hung on the wall. 'This is Liza Minnelli,' he said, putting on the vinyl disc of her singing Maybe This Time," then another recording – Billie Holiday's Body and Soul."

Ella fell in love with the forbidden jazz - a path that would lead her to startling revelations about Communism, the Iron Curtain, and, ultimately, to the free world outside. She moved to Moscow and joined the clandestine Jewish Music Theatre - an oasis of Western culture, swarming with foreign ambassadors and dissident, artistic intelligentsia, flourishing in the centre of hungry, oppressive, antisemitic Russia.

In Moscow, Ella began singing jazz in clubs, toured the country with two major state orchestras, recorded an album of children's songs that sold more than three million copies. In 1990, she finally left the crumbling Soviet Union, with the help of members of President Bill Clinton's inner circle whom she met at her concert.

With two suitcases and $300, Ella and her son Sergey arrived in America. Soon after, she met and married Stuart Altshuler, a rabbi from California. Tragically, Sergey died of leukaemia a few days before his ninth birthday.

Ella was left with nothing but a few songs they had composed together, trying to shorten the nights while Sergey was isolated in hospital.

Those songs kept her alive, giving her reason to go on and create continuity for Sergey's too short life.

"For years, I've been telling my stories through music," says Ella, "until I discovered that the joy and the challenge of writing could be as creative and expressive as composing music."

The Orphan Sky was inspired by the ancient Azeri Legend of Maiden Tower - a tale in which a princess chooses death over living in the Kingdom of Darkness.

The central character, a classical pianist who becomes embroiled in an emotional tussle between East and West, is based on Leila's own experiences in Eastern Europe.

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