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Yuri Yunakov

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Saxophonist Yuri Yunakov, of Turkish Roma (Gypsy) ancestry, is a dazzling performer of Bulgarian wedding music, a wild, fast-paced mix of Balkan village folk music, Turkish and Indian music, jazz and rock. 2011, photograph by Alan Govenar
Yuri Yunakov, photograph by Sarkis Barhar, courtesy Traditional Crossroads
Yuri Yunakov, courtesy Center for Traditional Music and Dance
Yuri Yunakov, courtesy Center for Traditional Music and Dance
Yuri Yunakov rehearses with his band in his hotel room, Bethesda, Maryland, 2011, photograph by Alan Govenar
Yuri Yunakov directs his band in his hotel room, Bethesda, Maryland, 2011, photograph by Alan Govenar

Yuri Yunakov hails from Haskovo, a city in Bulgarian Thrace, a region on the borders of Turkey and Greece with large Roma (Gypsy) and Turkish populations. Yunakov’s Turkish Roma family reflected the area’s strong musical heritage; his great-grandfather, grandfather and three uncles were violinists, and his father was a popular clarinet player. Yunakov displayed musical talent from an early age, learning the kaval (a shepherd’s flute), then the davul (a double-headed drum), on which he accompanied his father and older brothers at weddings. In his teens, he accompanied his father on the clarinet. Yunakov also trained as a boxer and won several national titles. In the mid-1970s, after serving in the army, he returned to music and took up the saxophone.

In 1983, Yunakov became a protégé of the famous bandleader Ivan Milev, who taught him the Bulgarian repertoire in practice sessions that stretched to thirteen hours. The following year, Yunakov made his debut with Milev’s group, Mladost, at Stambolovo, the national festival of “wedding music.” After that, he spent almost ten years in Trakija, the band led by the popular Ivo Papasov, who comes from a long line of clarinet players and is also of Turkish Roma descent. After the band won the Stambolovo competition in 1986, it was banned from entering so others could have a chance.

Wedding music is an ecstatic and eclectic mix whose components include jazz, rock, Turkish and Indian sounds and Balkan village folk music. The fast-paced popular music, also characterized by virtuosic technique and daring key changes, is played for dancing, not only at weddings but also at celebrations of other key events, such as circumcisions and baptisms. Though Bulgaria’s Communist government sponsored the Stambolovo festival, it was ambivalent about Roma music, and both Yunakov and Papasov were imprisoned for playing it.

Despite the repression, Yunakov, as a member of Papasov’s band, played for hundreds of celebrations in Bulgaria and toured extensively in Europe and North America. In 1989, they performed for the first time in the United States and appeared on jazz saxophonist David Sanborn’s national television show, Night Music.

Yunakov has made his home in the U.S. since 1994 and has remained in demand at home and abroad. A 2005 tour with Papasov included performances and seminars in twenty-five cities and residencies at the University of California Santa Barbara and Cornell University. The alto saxophonist has also played at hundreds of weddings and family gatherings in the Bulgarian, Turkish and Macedonian Roma communities in the tri-state area around New York City.

Discography
 Yuni Yunakov Ensemble. Balada-Bulgarian Wedding Music. Traditional Crossroads 4291. ________. New Colors in Bulgarian Wedding Music. Traditional Crossroads 4283.
 ________. Roma Variations. Traditional Crossroads 4306. (2001) Papasov, Ivoand his orchestra. Balkanology. Hannibal Records HNCD 1363.
 ________. Orpheus Ascending. Hannibal Records HNCD 1346. ________. Together Again: Legends of Bulgarian Wedding Music. Traditional Crossroads 4330.

Watch

Yuri Yunakov Ensemble at the Zlatne USTE Golden Festival, Courtesy Center for Traditional Music and National Endowment for the Arts

Yuri Yunakov Ensemble performing at a wedding, courtesy Center for Traditional Music and Dance and National Endowment for the Arts


Yuri Yunakov, Black Sea Roma Festival, part of the New York World Festival 2010, courtesy Center for Traditional Music and Dance

Yuri Yunakov, 2011 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts


Yuri Yunakov interviewed by Nicholas R. Spitzer, 2011 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Listen

Yuri Yunakov answers the question 'How did you get interested in music?' Telephone interview by Alan Govenar, June 27, 2011

Yuri Yunakov answers the question 'What was your first instrument?' Telephone interview by Alan Govenar, June 27, 2011

Yuri Yunakov answers the question 'On what occasions do you play music?' Telephone interview by Alan Govenar, June 27, 2011

Yuri Yunakov answers the quesiton 'What brought you to the United States?' Telephone interview by Alan Govenar, June 27, 2011

Yuri Yunakov answers the question 'What kind of work did you do when you migrated to the United States?' Telephone interview by Alan Govenar, June 27, 2011

Yuri Yunakov talks about the instrumentation in his band. Telephone interview by Alan Govenar, June 27, 2011

Yuri Yunakov answers the question 'What kinds of music do you play?' Telephone interview by Alan Govenar, June 27, 2011

Yuri Yunakov answers the question 'What keeps you going?' Telephone interview by Alan Govenar, June 27, 2011

Yuri Yunakov answers the question 'What does music mean in your life?' Telephone interview by Alan Govenar, June 27, 2011