Developed in the 1970s, Bulgarian wedding music is described by the University of Oregon's Carol Silverman as emphasizing "virtuosic technique, improvisation, fast speeds, daring key changes, and eclectic musical sources such as jazz, rock, Turkish, and Indian musics, as well as Balkan village folk music." A pioneer of this music, Yuri Yunakov is the leading Bulgarian Roma musician in the United States and largely responsible for creating the saxophone's role in this style. During communism, wedding music became an anti-government countercultural phenomenon that united Roma and Bulgarians. With this new contemporary fusion, Yunakov has raised the profile of Balkan music in the United States, playing for both Romani and non-Romani audiences alike.
Of Turkish Romani ancestry, Yunakov was born in 1958 in Haskovo, a city in the Thracian region of southeastern Bulgaria. His great-grandfather, grandfather, and three uncles were all violinists and his father was a popular clarinet player. At a young age, Yunakov learned the kaval (a shepherd's flute) followed by the davul (a traditional two-headed drum) which he used to accompany his father and older brothers at local weddings. In his teens, Yunakov also accompanied his father on the clarinet while training as a boxer. Following a time in the army in the mid-1970s, Yunakov returned to music and began playing the saxophone. In 1983, Ivan Milev discovered Yunakov and, after months of training, he began to play with Milev's group Mladost in 1984. He came to the notice of Ivo Papasov soon afterwards, going on to play in Papasov's band Trakija for nearly 10 years. Together with Trakija, Yunakov performed at hundreds of weddings in his native Bulgaria and toured extensively in Europe and North America. In 1989, Papasov's band performed for the first time in the United States, including a performance on David Sanborn's nationally broadcast TV program, Night Music.
After consistent persecution by the Bulgarian socialist government for performing Romani music, Yunakov emigrated to the United States in 1994 and formed his own band, the Yunakov Ensemble. The band has toured extensively throughout the United States and abroad but continues to play at weddings and family gatherings in New York's tri-state Bulgarian, Turkish, Romani, and Macedonian communities. The Yunakov Ensemble has made four recordings for Traditional Crossroads: New Colors in Bulgarian Wedding Music, Balada, Roma Variations, and Together Again. The Yunakov Ensemble has toured extensively, including performing at UCLA's Royce Hall, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and New York's Symphony Space, as well as playing in Germany, Poland, Denmark, and Italy.
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Sample: "Makedonska Gaida"