Elina Duni is a classically trained vocalist and composer who melds the folk music traditions of the Balkans and other European regions with jazz, blues, and other elements. Her music engages folk traditions, structured improvisation, modern classical, and elements of the singer/songwriter tradition, all woven together into a mosaic of her own design.
Duni was born in 1981 in Tirana, Albania, into a family of artists. Her mother Besa Myftiu and grandfather Mehmet Muftiu were writers, while father Spiro Duni was an actor and director of theater. At age five she began to study violin and, just a bit later, to perform publicly. Music became her prime mode of study while in high school. Between 1986 and 1991, she participated in several children's festivals and sang for National Albanian Radio and Television. As the government of Albania fell into strife — and eventually disintegrated amid sectarian violence — she and her family fled to Geneva, Switzerland when Elina was 20. Between 2004 and 2008 she studied singing, composition, and teaching at the University of Arts in Bern.
It was while at university that she formed the Elina Duni Quartet with pianist Colin Vallon, bassist Patrice Moret, and drummer Norbert Pfammatter. She recorded Baresha, her debut album with the group, in 2007; it was issued in 2008 by Meta Records. Its meld of root sources and modern jazz met with favorable reviews throughout Europe. In 2010, she followed it up for the same label with Lume Lume, which was much more oriented toward blues and jazz standards, though it did contain some folk songs.
Due to her association with Vallon, she garnered the attention of ECM's founder, Manfred Eicher, who signed her. Her debut for the label, Matanë Malit (Beyond the Mountain), featured numerous traditional songs of obscure and modern origin arranged for a jazz band (pianist Vallon, bassist Patrice Moret, and drummer Norbert Pfammatter). She arranged the set to tell the story of Albania, its people and history, and the troubles that have enveloped it since the fall of communism. That year she won the German Jazz Pott Prize in Essen. In 2014, she self-released Muza e Zezë (The Black Muse) in Kosovo and Albania — her debut offering as a singer/songwriter.
She followed it with her second ECM date, Dallëndyshe (Swallow), with the same group as on her label debut. Sung completely in Albanian (with English translations in the booklet), the album featured more traditional Balkan songs of love and exile and, as Duni put it in her liner notes, "...exile is forever a wound." The set was universally acclaimed by critics for its direct and relatable approach to Albanian folklore, and she was awarded that year's Diaspora Award by the Embassy of Kosovo in Switzerland. In 2017, she was one of several recipients of the Swiss Music Prize and began three new projects: a duo with British guitarist Rob Luft, Tribute to Billie Holiday with pianist Jean-Paul Brodbeck, and the quintet Aksham, featuring pianist Marc Perrenoud and trumpeter David Enhco.
In 2018, Duni issued her first completely solo offering for ECM entitled Partir. The inspiration for the album dated back to 2008 when she began accompanying her mother at readings from her books — Duni would play guitar, frame drums, or piano. Following this, she played solo concerts. With her own band on hiatus, she recorded 12 songs in Studios La Buissonne in Southern France with Eicher producing. She accompanied herself on the aforementioned instruments and sang in nine languages, among them Albanian, German, French, English, Italian, and Portuguese. The songs were almost all covers by songwriters as diverse as Jacques Brel, Alain Oulman, and Domenico Modugno, along with a handful of traditional folk songs. The album included a lone original in "Let Us Dive In." Partir was released at the end of April 2018. ~ Thom Jurek