INTERVIEW: Elina Duni (latest album Partir out on ECM; UK dates, Colchester, London and Cambridge 9-20 Nov)


Multilingual vocalist and composer Elina Duni has four UK dates in November in addition to many in Europe in the closing months of 2018. She spoke to LondonJazz News Editor-at-Large Peter Bacon about what her many languages mean to her, the themes within her music, and performing as part of a group and solo.

LondonJazz News: On your latest ECM release, Partir, you sing in nine different languages. Is there a language you consider your “first”? 

Elina Duni: I speak five languages and I have a special relationship to each one: I would say Albanian is my core language, it is my humour and I feel my deepest emotions here. French is my intellect, my understanding of complexity, abstraction as well as the French sense of irony. In other words: my French is Serge Gainsbourg! However, I also feel very close to English because of all the lyrics I’ve been singing and listening to since I was 10, and I feel at home in Italian because I grew up with Rai Uno as a child in communist Albania. And finally German is for me a “castle that never surrenders”, I feel it so close and so far. The other languages on the album that I can really relate to are Portuguese, because of the French and Italian connection and because of the Mediterranean “saudade” (melancholia) and I also feel Yiddish very deeply as it’s so close to old German. And finally, I find Arabic and Armenian to be otherworldly, wonderful sounds that I try to enjoy whilst I sing in them.

LJN: Of your three recordings for ECM, the first, Matanë Malit (2012), was an homage to the country of your birth, Albania; the second, Dallëndyshe (2015), focused on exile; and this year’s Partir concerns itself with songs of parting. Do these themes reflect your own circumstances/preoccupations at the time of making them? Have they been in some respects, a way of reconciling yourself to difficult circumstances in your life?

ED: Yes, absolutely. Partir began as a reflection upon the end of a lengthy love story. It also resonated with my own personal exile from Albania when I was 10, and finally it is a nod to all refugees leaving their homes, with no belongings apart from their memories and having no choice but to trust the unknown. I always felt that departing was an essential element of life, and it encompasses varying degrees of tragedy. The way we have to subsequently reconstruct ourselves, to believe in the future, is universal. It is a journey from pain to joy, from being torn apart to feeling whole again. This is why on stage, where I read texts to accompany the songs, I talk about Kintsugi (the Japanese art of gluing broken porcelain with gold). To me, this is a metaphor of the human soul and a hymn to the cracks that finally define us more than anything else.

LJN: The South African poet Breyten Breytenbach (himself an exile for many years) talked about how one develops one’s sense of colour and of light in the first five years or so of one’s life, so living in exile (inevitably in different light and surrounded therefore by different colours) has a sense of dislocation built into it at the most immediate sensory level. Do you agree, and do you think that sense of dislocation extends to sound/music?

ED: I understand and empathise with what Breytenbach says with regards to the senses, as I also often experience the sensation of a sound or a smell directly transporting me in time, dislocating me from where I am, taking me instantly back to childhood, to a world that no longer exists.
That being said, my experience with Albanian folk music was very different. I started to work on it during my 20s and before playing it with my quartet I had no idea that this sound world was present within me; I discovered my voice through it, like a key that I unknowingly possessed, and I also experienced for the first time in my life a feeling of unity. I felt two worlds collide: Albanian fire & Swiss wisdom! 
It totally astonished me as this was happening at the same moment that I was realising it. I would therefore say I had a sense of relocation with the music we made in my quartet. It gave me the tools to know who I was and where I was going.




LJN: You made four albums and toured with your Quartet. What prompted the move to a solo album? Do you enjoy having complete control over the performance of Partir? Or is touring Partir a little more lonely? Do you miss the band?

ED: In 2016, when I conceived the idea of Partir, the future of my quartet was uncertain and I had no other projects on the go. I needed to focus on the solitude that I was somehow so afraid of. Partir started initially as a performance piece and then when Manfred Eicher said he wanted to record it I was simultaneously excited and frightened. For 18 months, from the begining of the project to the recording session, I felt like a monk practising in a monastery. It was the first time in my life that I had to deal at length with myself, to take decisions, to listen to myself, to correct the errors of my ways and to accept my own limitations. Thus, Partir was (and still is) a novel journey. It made me understand a lot about myself and it made me appreciate playing with other musicians in a group context on a higher level. At the moment, my quartet lies dormant, neither performing nor recording. I’m happy with the several other musical projects that I’m embarking upon and I’m trying to extend my musicianship as much as possible. I was so happy to play with the three amazing musicians in my quartet (Colin Vallon, Patrice Moret and Norbert Pfammatter) for over 10 years.

LJN: Your UK dates in November are a mix of solo ones and your new duo with guitarist Rob Luft. Tell us about the duo – can we expect a recording from you and Rob in the future? And do you have any themes in mind for that?

ED: The duo with Rob was born out of a series of workshops in Lausanne as part of the Montreux Jazz Artists Foundation in March 2017. We met there and instantly formed a strong musical connection which slowly burgeoned into the "Songs of Love and Exile" project that we’ve been touring since October 2017. Essentiallly, this duo is an expansion of my Partir solo programme, which involves a slightly more expansive soundworld through Rob’s use of electronics & effects. Also, as we’ve been performing in the UK a little, we’ve started to include some Irish & American folk songs to further explore the world of folk music. What’s more, throughout this ongoing tour, we’ve been inviting selected special guests to join us on stage, for example we were lucky enough to have Kit Downes with us in London, Fred Thomas came to play piano and percussion in Hamburg and the great Enzo Zirilli played drums with us in Kosovo. I couldn’t possibly make any definite comments upon a recording for this duo, but having had such a wonderful year of concerts together, it would be a shame not to make a recording, in our opinion! (pp)

Elina Duni’s upcoming UK concerts:

9 Nov: Fleece Jazz, Colchester, Elina Duni & Rob Luft feat. Fred Thomas
16 Nov: Cadogan Hall, EFG London Jazz Festival, Elina Duni & Rob Luft (support for Tord Gustavsen) (almost sold out)
18 Nov: Omnibus Theatre Clapham Common, EFG London Jazz Festival, Elina Duni & Rob Luft (sold out)
20 Nov: Cambridge Jazz Festival, Elina Duni & Rob Luft

LINKS: Elina Duni's website, including full European tour dates

A recent live review of Elina Duni and Rob Luft with guest Kit Downes

Partir CD review

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