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Yuri Yunakov Ensemble


The Yuri Yunakov Ensemble performs Bulgarian and Romani (Gypsy ) music from the Balkan countries of Bulgaria and Macedonia. This music is renowned for its haunting melodies, dense ornamentation, complex rhythms, and stunning improvisations. The geographical position of the Balkans in southeastern Europe and hundreds of years of Ottoman Turkish rule have created a wealth of influences from both East and West.

The ensemble plays in a contemporary styled called "wedding music," so named for its ubiquitous presence at life cycle celebrations such as weddings and baptisms where dancing and music are a requirement. This style, which gained popularity in the 1970's, emphasizes virtuosic technique, improvisation, rapid tempos, daring key changes, and eclectic musical literacy. A multiplicity of styles, such as jazz and rock, and a multiplicity of sources, such as Turkish and Indian musics, are combined with Balkan rural and urban folk musics. In Bulgaria, "wedding music, " while officially suppressed by the socialist government, thrived in private settings as a means of countercultural expression.

The Ensemble's program weaves a texture of both instrumental and vocal music from contrasting regions of the Balkans performed in the Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, and Romani (Gypsy) languages. Texts express the experiences of village and urban living and the joys and sorrows of life among Roma. The Rom (Gypsy) repertoire highlights the popular dance form "chochek" and songs reflecting the marginalization of Roma from mainstream society. Roma, an ethnic group originally from India, have played a central role in the professional folk music of every country of the Balkans. Persecuted throughout history, Roma have recently become the target of numerous violent attacks in Eastern Europe.

The leading members of the Ensemble, Yuri and Ivan, played together in Bulgaria in the 1970's. With Ivo Papazov's band,Yuri made many European tours, and has also toured throughout North America and Australia to enthusiastic crowds. He is featured on numerous recordings, such as "Orpheus Ascending" and "Balkanology " (Hannibal/Ryko) and "Bulgarian Space Folk" (Balkanton). Ivan Milev had his own wedding band "Mladost," which achieved great popularity in Bulgaria. Yuri Yunakov formed his own Ensemble in New York City in 1995 which has toured widely in the United States and Australia. They have performed at the Clearwater Festival, WOMAD, Folk Parks, and the Telstra Adelaide Festival. In March/April 1999 they toured with the World Music Institute's "Gypsy Caravan" throughout North America. In summer 1999 they performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the July 4th Washington Monument Concert, the Lowell, Massachusetts Festival, the National Folk Festival in East Lansing, Michigan, the Chicago World Music Festival , and the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto. In 2000 the Ensemble performed at the Museum of Civization, Toronto, and toured Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Italy. Traditional Crossroads has produced two CD's of the ensemble, "New Colors in Bulgarian Wedding Music" in 1997, and "Balada" in 1999; a new CD "Roma Variations" will be released in Fall 2001.

Performer Biographies

Yuri Yunakov (saxophone) was born in Haskovo, Bulgaria, of Turkish Rom ancestry and currently lives in the New York City area. Yuri's career began with the band "Mladost" and he subsequently began a 10 year collaboration with Ivo Papazov and "Trakiya." Yuri is Bulgaria's most famous saxophonist. Together with the "Trakiya" orchestra Yunakov has played at hundreds of weddings in his native Bulgaria, and has toured extensively in Europe and North America. In 1989 he was featured on NBC TV with saxophonist David Sanborn. Yuri appears on "Gypsy Fire", a CD of Turkish music on Traditional Crossroads. He is the director of the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble, and is in great demand among the Macedonian, Bulgarian, Albanian, Turkish, Armenian and Rom communities in the New York area.

Ivan Milev (accordion), a recent emmigrat to New York City, is one of Bulgaria's most virtuosic and inventive accordionists, drawing inspiration from classical, jazz, and Eastern Orthodox church music. In the 1970's Milev founded the famous wedding band Mladost (Youth), based in Haskovo, Thrace. In 1986 Mladost won first prize in the Stambolovo Festival of Wedding Music and Milev won the best accordionist award. Yunakov credits Milev with training him in Bulgarian music and encouraging him to play the saxophone. Yuri played with Milev in Mladost for short time until Papazov recruited him. Milev's performances showcase a historic musical reunion with Yunakov on American soil.

Catherine Foster (clarinet, trumpet, vocals), an accomplished Balkan musician and protége of Yuri Yunakov, is a leading member of New York City's Zlatne Uste Balkan Brass Band and co-founder of the vocal ensemble Urban Women/Village Songs. In 1990 she participated in the brass band festival in Guca, Serbia, and she is also featured on the CD's "No Strings Attached" and "In the Center of the Village."

Lauren Brody (synthesizer, vocals) was born in New York City and has been playing and singing Bulgarian music since the late 1960's. She has lived in Bulgaria for many years researching various aspects of folk music and absorbing wedding music first hand. Her reissue of traditional Bulgarian folk music "Song of the Crooked Dance" was released by Yazoo in 1998. Lauren, an accomplished accordionist of klezmer music and founding member of "Kapelye", currently plays with "Mikveh" and "Freylach, Freylach." She has also played and sung in Aman, Pitu Guli, Novo Selo, Zhenska Pesna, Merak, Trio Svetlina, and The Joel Rubin Klezmer Band.

Georgi Petrov (drum set, vocals) is a versatile musician from Plovdiv, Bulgaria, who plays the kaval (end-blown flute) and accordion as well the tupan (two-headed drum) and tarabuka (hour-glass shaped drum). He graduated from the Shiroka Luka High School for Folk Music, specializing in kaval, and played with the Ensemble from the town of Pazardzhik from 1990-1991. He was classically trained as an accordionist, and taught himself drumming. He drummed with the Bulgarian wedding band Maritsa, lead by Hari Asenov, and toured with them in Yugoslavia.

Carol Silverman (vocals) has been involved with Balkan and Rom music and culture for over twenty years as a researcher, teacher, performer, and activist. An award-winning professor of cultural anthropology and folklore at the University of Oregon, she teaches about Balkan culture, ethnographic theory, and human rights issues among Roma. Based on field research in Bulgaria, Macedonia, New York, and Australia, her work analyses the relationship among music, politics, ritual, and gender. She has performed with Zenska Pesna, Slavej, and Izgrev, and teaches Balkan singing nationally. She was the educational coordinator for "the Gyspy Caravan" tour.


Location: San Francisco, California

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