By Don Heckman
I am delighted to tell her many fans, here at iRoM and across the international musical world, that Ella Leya, Azerbaijani-born Hollywood composer/singer/author, was invited by First Lady Mrs. Michelle Obama to the recent Nowruz reception held at the White House. And the honor was well deserved, acknowledging Ella Leya as one of the most prominent Azeri-Americans for her vital contributions to the cultural heritage of both her native and adoptive
Ella Leya has become an effective and influential emissary of Azerbaijani culture in the United States, bringing a growing awareness of her homeland to American audiences. Her life journey has been featured in major USA media and her songs have appeared in movies such as Ocean’s Twelve.
Her debut novel, The Orphan Sky, is the first novel about Azerbaijan to be written and published in the United States. Among the many accolades it has received, legendary Chicago Tribune journalist Rick Kogan has noted that “this book belongs on the desk of every cultural attaché around the world as a beautiful, poetic introduction to Azerbaijan.”
I first met Ella Leya a decade ago when I interviewed her for a Los Angeles Times story about her intriguing album, Russian Romance, in which she sings songs in the Russian romance style — an expressive, often sentimental art form combining lyrics by well-known Russian poets with Gypsy-tinged, often blues-like melodies and Middle-Eastern rhythms.
And I was immediately convinced that I’d just met a born storyteller — a view that broadened as soon as I heard her other recordings — Queen of Night and Secret Lives of Women, the latter dedicated to history’s most famous and infamous femme fatales: Sappho, Cleopatra, Anne Boleyn, Sarah Bernhardt, Mata Hari, Princess Diana.
But I never anticipated that those impressive story-telling skills would come together in the pages of the semi-autobiographical The Orphan Sky. Nor did I realize that Ella’s rich, extensive music background – as an award- winning classical pianist and a convincing jazz singer/songwriter – would also play a powerful role in the novel’s irresistible tale of love, destiny, and art.
Ella, who now lives in London, explained the creatively symbiotic linkage between words and music in her debut novel in a conversation we had for a story in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Words,” she told me, “are my musical notes, formed through melody. I follow its rhythm, syncopations, harmonies, dissonances, climaxes until I reach that sacred place of creative freedom where I can pour my heart out on paper.”
Set at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, The Orphan Sky, its story inspired by Azerbaijan’s Legend of Maiden Tower, reveals the ancient soul of 20th century Azerbaijan, chronicling the life of Leila, a young pianist, as she searches for her identity amid the travails of her beloved country. The tale, which blends a Romeo and Juliet story in a coming of age narrative, also has a strikingly contemporary subtext, revealing the deep historical roots that have impacted Azerbaijan’s role in the troubled complexities of the present day Middle East.
The Orphan Sky has been endorsed by such iconic music and literary personalities as Maxim Vengerov, Quincy Jones, Tracy Chevalier, and praised “as visceral and exotic as any spy novel and as authentically convincing as The Kite Runner.”
It’s no surprise, therefore that The Orphan Sky has already piqued interest from several top film directors considering a film adaptation of this superb contemporary tale.