LAILA AL-SANNA’ AL-ANDALUSIYYA
“Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.”
- Jalāl al-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī
Sayyida Laila al-Sanna’ al-Andalusiyya is an artist who specializes in late medieval and Renaissance vocal and theatrical performance. She is most known for her performances of 13th-15th century Ladino music, and her groundbreaking research into the roots of Sephardic musical traditions. Laila is also building a reputation as a visual artist, receiving particular notice for her Renaissance-style chiarascuro figural studies in charcoal and clay.
Laila teaches classes on vocal performance, classical Arabic music, late Renaissance English theatre, and the historical role of courtesans in the performing arts. She is currently working with The Honorable Lady Ajir Tsagaan to develop new classes on color theory and figure drawing.
Sayyida Laila is the Chair of Opera Studies for the East Kingdom College of Performers, and is a member of the Keepers of Athena’s Thimble, the Velvet Mask, the Knowne World Courtesans, Clan Blue Feather, and the newly re-formed Gilded Pearl. She has been in the SCA since 1993, almost all of that time spent in Caid (Barony of Western Seas, Barony of Angels, and Barony of Lyondemere), where she was known as Elizaveta Arievna Lebedeva. She recently moved to the East Kingdom, and expects the move to be permanent.
Sayyida Laila al-Sanna’ al-Andalussiya is the former Bard of Caid, and a member of the Order of the Troubador (East) and the Order of the Harp Argent (Caid). She is currently serving as the Arts & Sciences Champion for the Barony of Bhakail.
Sayyida Laila’s recent interview for the Knowne World Courtesans’ podcast, Whores to Culture:
Laila is available for private and group lessons on a variety of topics. She has a Master’s degree in Theatre and has been a private voice teacher and coach for more than 18 years.
A frequently updated list of period Arabic musical modes and their modern equivalents, with scales, examples, period sourcing and historical notes. This is an ongoing project, and page contents may change as I discover new information.
A soon-to-be-searchable database of period Ladino and Sephardic music (sheet music, recordings, and videos), continually updated as more information becomes available. In cases where I have been unable to locate published sheet music, I have been transcribing the songs from recordings. If you have pieces that you would like to contribute to the database, please contact me.
I was born in the Kingdom of Gharnata, where the air smelled like orange blossoms and the golden sun reflected off gilded domes and marble minarets. My father was a renowned military officer. He came from a good family of noble descent, and he held a position of great respect and authority in the community. My mother was a Jew from Realejo, the daughter of a rabbi. My very existence straddled worlds.
I was raised in a villa on the outskirts of the city. I had the best tutors in Gharnatah. I was given a complete education - virtually the same education that would have been given to a boy, except for the military components, which were replaced by subjects more “suited” to a girl: poetry, embroidery, dance and music. My mother hired a special tutor, a rabbi, to teach me Hebrew, Ladino, and Torah studies. She also taught me her native Ladino songs, which I adored. I lived an idyllic existence.
Then, in 1491, my father died defending the nation. A year later, we lost the war, and the last remnant of the glory of al-Andalus fell to the Christian heathens. My mother, unable to tear herself away from the world she knew, chose to remain in Spain as a marrano, hiding her religion and her heritage, in flagrant violation of the Edict of Expulsion. I chose to leave and seek my fortune in the east.
Accompanied by a dozen of my father’s retainers and by my aunt, Safiyya, I loaded the family wealth into a caravan and left the country of my birth forever. I traveled east for almost a year, stopping in Paris, Rome, Venice, and Constantinople. I was exposed to art, music, theatre and culture. I received a second education on my travels.
In many great cities, I discovered there lived a class of women who were free from the bonds of marriage, called courtesans. These women were smart, witty, talented, and above all, independent. The courtesans in Venice were the happiest, most satisfied women I had ever come across. “Proper” women looked down on them, of course. But the courtesans didn’t seem to care. They were quite happy with their wealth and celebrity, and generally unconcerned about the petty gossip which followed in their wake.
When I arrived in Isfahan, I presented myself as a courtesan and gained a position in one of the great courtesan houses, owing in no small part to my excellent education and singing voice. There, I was taught those secret arts that only courtesans know - the arts of flirtation, seduction, and pleasure, as well as the skills a courtesan must master to survive, such as painting the face, artfully draping one’s clothing, sitting and walking and standing with grace, and charming conversation.
Soon I had gained renown as one of the finest singers in Persia. I was invited to the court of the Shah, and became one of his favorite entertainers and companions. I traveled with him to the far corners of Persia and even to the Mughal Empire in the east, where I heard Indian singers for the first time. I prevailed upon the rajadasis, the Indian Shah’s courtesans, to teach me some of their songs and dances, that I might bring them back to the Safavid courts. I implored our European visitors to teach me the newest songs from Italy and bring me manuscripts for theatrical plays from England and France.
Finally, after I had served the Shah for many long years and earned his trust, I asked him for his blessing to form my own house of courtesans. He honored me by gifting me with a plot of land on which to build our estates, and two of his own ghulam — Georgian eunuchs who had shown considerable talent in music and dance.
Six months later, we presented ourselves in court for the first time as The House of the Lotus. We are a new house, and our name is not yet known, but soon we will be the greatest courtesan house in all of Isfahan.