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Elina Duni: Love, Lust And Albanian Folk Songs

Oct 19, 2012
Originally published on October 19, 2012 7:12 pm

The spread of formal jazz education has created a new breed of global musician: one who uses improvisation, and other devices associated with jazz, to transform folk and traditional music. The Albanian singer Elina Duni is part of this rising class. Her latest release, Matane Malit ("Beyond the Mountain"), offers a transfixing balance of old and new.

When Duni was growing up, the singer and composer says she didn't pay much attention to the folk music loved by her grandparents. She went to music school in Switzerland, and there, a pianist friend asked if she knew any traditional Albanian songs. She did not. That sent her on a search to discover the music of her homeland.

"Kjani Trima" is a folk song that has rattled around the Balkans for a long time. It's safe to say that Duni's version, with its stately and majestic vocal ad-libs and coloristic backing, isn't the most traditional. But it reveals the alchemy behind this transfixing collection: Though trained as improvisers, Duni and her group handle these plaintive melodies with great respect and reverence.

When Duni sings, she's poised but fierce as she stretches the themes, pushing until they're about ready to snap. Her musicians enhance the effect, surrounding her with expansive, beautifully nuanced chords that carry traces of Maurice Ravel and Bill Evans.

Duni has been working with Albanian folk songs since 2004. She considers them central to her art, and says she's moved by their poetry every time she sings. The lyrics tell of love, lust and honor, hardship and perseverance, man's relationship to the land, and (in the grand tradition of folk songs) death. And you don't have to understand Albanian to appreciate what's happening here: Starting with somber and often heavy music, Duni and her group wind up in a soaring, graceful realm all their own.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Elina Duni is an Albanian singer who was trained in jazz and composition. With that as her foundation, she's turned her focus to the traditional music of her homeland. Critic Tom Moon says Duni's latest release offers a transfixing balance of old and new.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TOM MOON, BYLINE: When she was growing up, singer and composer Elina Duni says she didn't pay much attention to the folk music of her grandparents. She went to music school in Switzerland, and there, a pianist friend asked if she knew any traditional Albanian songs. She did not and that sent her on a search to discover the music of her homeland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOON: This folk song has rattled around for a long time. It's safe to say that Elina Duni's version, with its coloristic backing, isn't the most traditional. It reveals the alchemy behind this transfixing collection. Though they're trained as improvisers, Duni and her group interpret these plaintive melodies with great reverence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOON: Listen to how Elina Duni sings. She's poised but fierce as she stretches the themes, pushing until they're about ready to snap. Her musicians enhance the effect, surrounding her with expansive, beautifully nuanced chords that carry traces of Maurice Ravel and also Bill Evans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOON: Elina Duni has been working with Albanian folk songs since 2004. She says she's moved by their poetry every time she sings. The lyrics tell of love, lust and honor, and in the grand tradition of folk songs, death. And you don't have to understand Albanian to appreciate what's happening here. Starting with somber and often heavy music, Elina Duni and her group wind up in a soaring, graceful realm that is unlike anything else.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: The new album from the Elina Duni Quartet is called, in Albanian, "Matane Malit." In English, that's "Beyond The Mountain." Our reviewer is Tom Moon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.