A frame drum in hand, crying out...
Two years ago, in a dark hallway behind the Zürich club, Moods, Elina Duni played me a recording of her singing in English, and she wanted to know if her intonation in this foreign language was correct, she needed it to sound genuine. Elina was on an odyssey that has become her solo album on ECM, Partir.
The word 'partir' resonates with feeling. In English it's 'leave' or 'depart' and Elina specifically chose it as the title, “I had just moved to Zürich and I was uncertain about my future because the quartet [Elina Duni Quartet] had decided to take a break and I'd come out of a big, long, love story. It was a moment that I knew I had to do this journey alone. To overcome this loneliness I had to go deep into it...I had to trust that something good was going to come out of this place of 'nowhere' - where I felt I was.”
Elina had begun to try out ideas in a show at Cully Jazz back in 2015. I remember the gig so clearly: she came from the back of Le Temple, a charming, little church, with a frame drum in hand, crying out as she walked. It was so raw that my throat tightened immediately, tears formed; it had a physical impact. Accompanying herself on piano and guitar, she took us through songs of loss and love, alone onstage.
“they are songs that appealed to me”
The performance was driven by her feeling of exile: from the town she'd been living, from her band, and from a potent love affair. It mirrored her difficult experience of leaving Albania for Switzerland as a child, and made her think of Syrian refugees being forced to leave their homes, “Their story is more tragic, they have nothing and have to trust the unknown, they have to go on. It was a strong moment, when I thought I could put these three stories together as a show. I started writing the texts. I took songs, some that I already knew and others, I can't say how I picked them up, this is a mystery to me, but they are songs that appealed to me.” To her surprise when she approached Manfred Eicher at ECM he said he wanted to make it into an album.
Partir includes chanson, fado and Balkan traditionals, drawn together by their heartfelt poetry, but for me, a stand-out track is actually Elina's own, 'Let Us Dive In' written in English. When I first met Elina in 2013, she talked about language and the experience of going to school in Switzerland unable to speak French, “I was confronted with solitude which is something I didn't know existed because in Albania you were always surrounded with people all the time...This is where music helped me.” She had tapes of the Beatles and they became her friends until she settled into this new country. Learning the language was key to her survival then and years later, in this new time of loss and change, Elina returned to that: she sings in nine languages on the album, including Hebrew and Arabic. It's an incredible statement.
Elina Duni - Let Us Dive In
“I really learnt humility doing this solo”
Recorded at Le Buissonne studio with only Elina, trusted engineer Gerard de Haro, and Eicher himself, the sound is noticeably intimate. Of course she was nervous, there's nowhere to hide in such a setting, but the months she spent perfecting her delivery of the tracks was rewarded, and the recording experience was memorable. The way she uses her voice has evolved in this process, “I think my voice is more grounded...There is a danger with singers of listening to themselves and judging what sounds good whilst they're singing...it's a subtle balance between being real and truthful, and shaping the sound to the aesthetic you want. Enjoy your sound, but in a modest way. I really learnt humility doing this solo.”
Elina was singing at festivals in her native Albania by the tender age of five, and it shows in her performances onstage. She is natural and charismatic, pulling your attention to her; one moment she sparkles like an angel and the next you sense rich, wet soil, or a heady wine. She wears long dresses, is sometimes barefoot, and with a mane of ebony-red hair and lips a Gothic crimson, she seems to have stepped out of a folk tale.
Her unique selling point has been to re-version the ballads of her homeland like a modern minstrel awakening audiences to their power. “You can feel the songs' strength because they've crossed centuries and the melodies are archaic and deep,” she explains. With her quartet of pianist Colin Vallon, bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Norbert Pfammatter she had a fruitful chemistry; they would take the the skeletons of these songs and make them feel relevant today. Elina brings them close to us whilst never straying into gross sentimentality, as in 'Vishnja' on her new album. It's a skill.
Elina Duni - Vishnja
“Albania in the 80s was another time. It doesn't exist anymore.”
“We all experience this torment, this feeling of being torn apart,” Elina says of loss, and it's true. I even feel that being an adult is like an exile - from childhood. Sometimes a glow of sunlight or certain perfume can suddenly take us 'back there', back to being a kid, and there is a whisper of sadness because that time has gone forever. Elina recalls an old phrase, “There are two tragedies in life: to have an awful childhood and to have a wonderful childhood!” Hers was happy and carefree, “Albania in the 80s was another time. It doesn't exist anymore. There were no cars, no consumerism, no Coca Cola, no aluminium…We used to be happy when we could eat chewing gum or chocolate because they were very rare.”
Although it was still under a Communist dictatorship, the People's Socialist Republic of Albania had cut ties – and therefore economic support from the Soviet Union and China – and was poverty-stricken. Duni knew one family with a fridge and the whole neighbourhood used it. However, amongst this lack of 'stuff', there was a lot of activity. She recalls: “We grew up jumping, climbing trees and running and fighting and being outside all the time. Imagination played a very important role. Everyone was writing poetry and reading. It was a golden time.” A vital part of her life now is to visit often and re-connect with artists there. She's collaborating again with Kleidi Eski who made the enchanting animated video for 'Sytë'. But Elina is also pressing forward, she doesn't want to repeat her past work.
“I feel I did this Balkan thing loads”
“There are two Elinas,” she explains, “the sublime of Albania, and the Middle East - the woman that sings the pain. And there's the European one that listens to Serge Gainsbourg and loves the Beatles, who is more into irony, is less 'tragic' and more playful. I feel I did this Balkan thing loads and if I continue I'll start playing at being 'Elina the vocalist that sings Balkan songs'.” Now she wants to take her experience in a new direction and with Partir in the Swiss Billboard chart there's proof she's moving in the right direction.
In new projects such as Aksham, a quintet playing original material, and her duo with UK guitarist Rob Luft, Elina wants to explore groove, African rhythms and other inspirations. She will re-version her solo album for this duo and do a UK tour including Manchester and London Jazz Festivals. She says of new partner Rob, “We met at a very interesting time. I always thought that what is deep is in the melancholy, in the slow lamentation, but the solo album made me think you can be meaningful in the lightness too.” She refers to the Japanese art of kinsugi; fusing broken pottery with gold to make it beautiful again, but in a new way. “With Rob we can find this lightness together,” she says and points to the video of the duo singing Gainsbourg's 'Couleur Cafe'.
Elina Duni & Rob Luft - Couleur Café
In talking with her this time, her ambition for this new phase in her life is palpable. And there is a clear energy and confidence for original songwriting. Elina does not do things with half a heart; the schooling she's had in working with folk songs, along with her passion for musicians like Paul McCartney, will be put to great use. In some ways I feel Elina Duni has only just started, there is a definitely a lot more to come, and she will push herself to ensure it is of the highest quality.
Elina Duni Discograhpy
Partir, ECM, 2018
Dallëndyshe, ECM, 2015
Muza e Zeze, 2014
Matanë Malit, ECM, 2012
Lume, Lume, Meta Records, 2010
I kalter, 2009
Baresha, Meta Records, 2008