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.
NEA: First of all, many congratulations! How did you find out that you were awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts? Did Barry Bergey, Director of Folk and Traditional Arts, call you?
Yuri Yunakov: Yes, he called me when I was sleeping. He said "Congratulations. You have received an NEA [National Heritage Fellowship]." I don't understand what he means. He said, "You have $25,000." I thought he was joking. I'm thinking friends are playing a trick on me. But as he started to speak more I woke up and said, "You sure?" "Yes," he said. "You're the first guy from Balkans to receive this [National Heritage Fellowship]. You are going to make American history." I'm so happy.
NEA: You come from a musical family.
Yunakov: My whole family is musicians, you have to be musician. First, music. After, another job.
NEA: What was the first instrument you played?
Yunakov: My first instrument was the davul. Its Bulgarian name is tŭpan, the Turkish name is davul. It's like two drums -- one on each end. You play it with two sticks, one small one, and the other bigger. It helped me with rhythm. It is pure rhythm, inner rhythm, good for any young musician just starting out. After the tŭpan, they can take on other instruments.
NEA: When did you move on to the saxophone?
Yunakov: My family had a band: my father, my brothers, my uncles, anybody could play, but my father played the clarinet. My brother played the clarinet. I was also playing clarinet, but as the time goes on, my father decided, "You're going to start to play saxophone. You have to change your instrument." Not too many people were playing the saxophone at this time. A saxophone at a wedding party? Nobody did that. But my father said, "No. You're starting because you're going to be a good musician with the saxophone." He knew it would be important. My father was the best musician from my town. He had lots of jobs from lots of people and any day there's a wedding he was playing.
NEA: For somebody who doesn't know about wedding music, how would you describe it?
Yunakov: Wedding music, it's the very best music from my country. First of all, wedding music is played by the best musicians. They have to know a lot of stuff, lots of rhythms. They might have to play four, maybe five hours non-stop, repeating just one rhythm. For five hours do you know how many pieces you would have to play? Up to 100 or even up to 200 songs.
NEA: The music you play is a mixture. It's Bulgarian, it's Turkish, and it's Roma -- a combination of everything.
Yunakov: Everything from Balkan -- a combination of Balkan and Turkish music.
NEA: How is Roma music different from Bulgarian and Turkish music?
Yunakov: Turkish music is slow music with not so many technical details, always legato. But Bulgarian Roma music, our music is totally different. The Bulgarian musician takes a lot from Turkish music but he changes the style, so it's totally different.
NEA: Growing up, what kind of music did you hear in your house?
Yunakov: Both Turkish and Bulgarian music, and Bulgarian folk music, too.
NEA: In Bulgaria when you were younger, Roma music was difficult to play? Because of the authorities?
Yunakov: Yes. You had a lot of problems. I know this; I was two times put in jail for the music. To say to another musician you can't play this music. People were scared. I don't want to go back to those memories. Music is music. Politics is politics.
NEA: Now, you played with Ivo Papasov? How did you first meet him? How did you collaborate?
Yunakov: We have a big festival in my country. The first time we held this festival he saw me. My brother at this time had an orchestra and I played for my brother. He saw me there. He liked my style, a new much better style. He invited me to play with his orchestra, but I didn't want to leave my brother's orchestra even though, to me, [Papasov] was the best musician in the world and I'm still young. He told me, "You have to be next to me. You're a good musician and a good musician, he needs to play with the best musician." I performed every day with Ivo Papasov. Every day there is a wedding party or concert. The orchestra is starting to say, "Please, don't take this job! I have to see my family, my children." Business is good, lots of work. How many days are there in the year? Three hundred sixty five? We have almost four hundred jobs a year. Day time, one job. Night time, another job. It's too much. But I have a good time.
NEA: Who else have you played with? Ivan Milev?
Yunakov: Yeah. I learned a lot of stuff from him, especially Bulgarian folk music. He played with me a couple years.
NEA: Now when you play today, you take all these different musical influences and you put them together.
Yunakov: Yes, of course. It is very important. You have to take the people in your heart.
NEA: There are so many different cultures in the Balkans. I mean, you personify three, just in your person. Do you see music as a bridge between cultures; a way that different cultures and countries can talk to each other?
Yunakov: Yes. Here many people do not understand what you are talking about because you do not speak English, but music, when you start to play music together, there is no language barrier.
NEA: I know a lot of jazz musicians want to play with you, including Paquito D'Rivera. Yet you say you don't play jazz. You like it, but you don't play it?
Yunakov: I guess I'm playing maybe a Balkan jazz. American jazz is a totally different kind of music. I love it. I love jazz.
NEA: Who do you like to listen to?
Yunakov: Charlie Parker. He's the best.
NEA: You record lots of music now. Do you miss not having an audience you can go back and forth with?
Yunakov: I like an audience. An audience gives me more, more power, more energy. Some musicians are scared of the audience and do not perform the same. Some people play great in the studio, but go on the stage and do not play the same. But I like people to be next to me.