Elina Duni Quartet: Matanë Malit (ECM 2277)

Elina Duni Quartet
Matanë Malit

Elina Duni voice
Colin Vallon piano
Patrice Moret double bass
Norbert Pfammatter drums
Recorded February 2012, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro, Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“This album is the echo of my childhood, my exile and my reconciliation with the two worlds that have shaped me—the Albania of my roots and the Switzerland of my life today.”

Matanë Malit. Beyond the mountain. The title of Elina Duni’s ECM debut. Yet something more. A call to the spirit in whose hands rests the diary her quartet inscribes with accounts of a tormented past. With one eye longing for her childhood in Albania, another taking in the classical, blues, and jazz traditions into which she has since grown, Duni treats every word that crosses her lips as if it were the first. By paying homage to the land of her birth, she forges a land in and of itself, each song a tectonic plate beneath the soil of the group’s atmospheric arrangements.

It was pianist Colin Vallon, with whom Duni studied at Berne’s Hochschule der Künste, who encouraged the developing singer to mine the past for inspiration. Her duo work with Vallon formed the seed of the current project, fleshed further by drummer Norbert Pfammatter and Vallon’s trio bassist, Patrice Moret.

In assembling this program, the quartet had to clean out the dust of political distortion that had gathered in its crevices, for many of the songs therein found themselves lyrically changed to suit the propaganda machine of a fervent communist regime. The titular shepherdesses of “Çobankat” long once more for self-sufficiency in the face of an inflexible marriage tradition, their voices wafting over the hills through Duni’s earthen diction with determination, beauty, and wit. Such individualism surely ruffled the feathers of agitprop pundits, who recast these once “progressive” women as “brave” allies bringing provisions and darning socks for anti-fascist partisans in the mountains. Such history further informs “Mine Peza,” a verse often sung by Duni’s maternal grandfather, who fought alongside those very partisans at the mere age of 12. Written under Mussolini’s shadow, it tells the tragic story of its eponymous hero, ending the album on its most solemn note:

Let’s cast off the chains
of this cruel occupation
cries the mother.
But the gun in the hand
of the treacherous soldier
shoots the mother dead.

Along the way, however, we do find moments of joy in a place where even the longest political arms cannot reach: the human heart. The secret love made manifest in “Ka një mot” (For a year) begins the album with youthful optimism, and is emblematic of the group’s democratic energy. Duni’s presence is close as a whisper, even as it seems to sing from a distance. Moret, Pfammatter, and lastly Vallon buffs every rock of this landscape until it speaks. There is also the invigoration of “U rrit vasha” (The girl has grown up), a wedding song from Kosovo that finds a living smile in every change of terrain.

The girl has grown up
in our mountains.
Her body is tall like a cypress
and the birds sing.

“Erë pranverore” (Spring breeze), a once-forbidden song from 1962, rises from the ashes here a beautiful organism. Every muted sentiment rejoices anew at the wonders of a life without borders. Vallon’s muted strings provide a percussive and melodic backbone as Duni follows roads to lovers in full bloom. True to the history being told, however, she looks also at the destitute. We stand with the “Vajzë e valëve” (Girl of the waves) as she yearns for her husband who may never return, invisible as he is among the waves of his vocation. Her love remains potent against the attacks of violent waters, but for how long?

Beautiful birds
my only hope lies in you.

And many of us will relate to the shattered protagonist of “Unë ty moj” (Me and you), whose love proclaims itself far too late, only to find the idol of its affections in the arms of another.

Burn my soul,
burn.

There are, too, the hero songs, which place emphasis on Albania’s vast diaspora. “Kjani trima” (Cry brave ones), for one, pits us against the mighty Ottoman Empire and searches futilely for those lost in the aftermath. Like the evocative “Ra kambana” (The bells are ringing), this is a song of the Alvanitas, Albanians living in northern Greece. “Çelo Mezani,” for another, tells of a local southern Albanian hero whose tragic death by bullets leaves a despondent mother behind. Heartrending even without knowledge of its content, the music embraces his fallen body and inters it with palpable care. Each note is a quiet cry, a reflection upon waters long disturbed but still as glass in memory.

Duni pens the most effective song of the set. Setting verse by the great Ismail Kadare, her “Kristal” fits seamlessly into the rest. A dance of death and forgetting, it lets us fall until we are at peace with what has transpired. “Poetry,” writes Duni in her liner notes, “is what guides and fascinates me,” and this is precisely what we feel coursing through the music even when she absents herself from it. Her silences and wordless flights lift us into a world preserved beyond not only the mountains but also the clouds, giving space for her band mates to expand upon what is painted before us. Their palette is the Albanian language itself, and by extension its heritages; their canvas, the mirror of ignorance that still surrounds this neglected republic. In paying due respect to the past, they have created an anthem for the future.

And when you remember the old house,
the friends we’ve lost
and those who are gone.
You will remember me too
like a stranger.
Like a statue whose arm you broke
in a wild embrace!

(To hear samples of Matanë Malit, click here. See this review in its original form at RootsWorld here.)

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