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Elina Duni quartet blends traditional folk with jazz

By Joey Steinberger, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 26, 2012

As a cultural phenomenon, jazz flourished in the United States and quickly spread around the world. As it traveled, the tradition changed, incorporating local influences into its sound. The Elina Duni quartet, a Jazz group from Switzerland, creates music that is a product of this fusion. By combining Jazz with Albanian folk songs.

Elina Duni, the band’s namesake, started playing piano and singing when she was five. At 17 she learned the blues and picked up jazz naturally from there, eventually studying jazz in Switzerland at the University of Bern.

At Bern, she met Collin Vallon, who plays piano in the quartet. Vallon was the one who originally proposed combining jazz with Albanian folk music.

“He said ‘Why don’t we play Albanian folk songs and transform them, play them in a jazz way,’ ” Elina Duni said. “To improvise with them and play them in a free way.”

Though Duni lived in Albania until she was 10, she wasn’t familiar with the country’s traditional folk music until she met Vallon. Folk music was politicized by the Albanian communist state and widely disliked for that reason.

But after listening to some old cassettes, Duni quickly developed a connection to the music, which in turn developed her own sound as a jazz performer.

“I fell in love with the poetry, melody and depth of the music … I was fascinated by it,” Duni said.

She began to improvise with rhythm, harmonies and other sounds.

“I didn’t want to do the jazz bebop thing; folk music helped me find a kind of freedom,” Duni said.

Duni and Vallon morphed from duo to trio and then quartet. Adam Hopkins now plays bass and Norbert Pfammatter plays drums. Duni is the only Albanian member of the quartet; the other three members hail from Switzerland. The band has played together for seven years and is currently on tour promoting their third CD, Matanë Malit. The CD incorporates jazz renditions of traditional songs, some original compositions and songs from the communist era.

“One is a song that was forbidden during the communist era because it was a bit jazzy. Another is from the Second World War; it’s a song my grandfather used to always sing to me,” Duni said. “I think the CD is a journey through Albania and Albanian history.”

For her original compositions on the CD, Duni wrote songs that incorporated traditional themes in the folk music, but also transgressed them to make the sound new. She’s creating a new genre because “there is no point in trying to imitate something that’s already been done.”

As part of the quartet’s first tour of America, they will perform a concert at the Kerrytown Concert House. They are also set to perform a radio concert at the Acoustic Café, a radio station syndicated across the country.

Though Duni sings for the quartet, she doesn’t single herself out as a “lead singer.”

“This is a music that is made by four people and it’s important to me that this quartet isn’t a singer with a trio,” Duni said. “I consider my voice as another instrument, even if I write lyrics.”

This ethos is vital, as every member of the group improvises during the band’s live shows and on its CDs.

“Each member brings their own interpretation and musical values to the performance,” Duni said, “Without them this music wouldn’t exist.”