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From the album
(Traditional Crossroads)

Roma Sax Man of Bulgaria
Yuri Yunakov talks with Christina Roden about wedding music and life in America

Yuri Yunakov is a founder and one the biggest stars of Bulgaria's wildly popular "wedding music" scene. A saxophone player of astounding technical virtuosity, his improvisational command of the style's signature frenetic, complicated, and abruptly shifting time signatures has been known to make seasoned jazz players gulp with disbelief. How Yunakov and "wedding music" ultimately overcame long years of government harassment and centuries of racial persecution makes an instructive and triumphant tale.

Yuri Yunakov is a Turkish-Bulgarian Roma, or Gypsy. Roma is how they refer to themselves, but the Gadje (non-Rom people) call them "Tziganes," "Sinti," "Gitanos" or "Manouches," often with derogatory implications. "Gypsy," the most commonly used term in the United States, is actually a corruption of Egyptian, which was where most Europeans mistakenly thought these dark wanderers came from. In fact, the Roma migrated from northern India before the last millennium. Linguistic studies indicate that their language, Romanes, is derived from Sanskrit and has much in common with modern Hindi. There are also striking physical resemblance between the Roma and North Indians, as well as similar caste divisions and cultural taboos.

The Roma probably traveled to Europe during the early fourteenth century. They survived by working as entertainers, fortune tellers, horse traders, metal workers and peddlers. They provided an array of indispensable services and their music was widely admired, but they were classified as outsiders due to their dark complexions, mysterious language and nomadic way of life. The Roma's lack of any recognized nationality made them easy marks and convenient scapegoats wherever they went. Although they tend to mistrust the written word, tales of enslavement, mutilation and forced settlement are rife throughout their carefully maintained oral tradition. Reliable sources estimate that 600,000 Roma were massacred in concentration camps during "The Devouring," which is their term for the Holocaust. Despite an international mobilization of the tribes and a few decades of representation at the United Nations, persecution of the Roma remains commonplace.

I continued to box even after I finished the army, but I couldn't earn enough money." he remembers, "So, I returned to music.
Yuri Yunakov grew up in Thrace, in Southern Bulgaria. Socialist regimes throughout the Eastern Bloc were attempting to eradicate Rom culture via forcible assimilation, or worse, and Bulgaria was no exception. Rom families with Muslim surnames were obliged to change them and Yunakov says that his was one of these. "I think we were called the Family Of Ali, but this was the Muslim name. We changed it at some point to a Slavic name.," he recalls. The Rom people stubbornly clung to their folkways, but their language suffered and was virtually eradicated in some areas. Yunakov experienced this loss first-hand. "I understand Romanes, but don't speak it.," he says.

Rom music persisted on the sly, and Yunakov was surrounded by music and musicians from his earliest childhood. He began sitting in with his father's band when he was a young boy. He played the tupan (drum) and the kaval (shepherds' flute) before taking up the clarinet, which was also his father's instrument. "My first influences came from my grandfather, my father and my older brother. My whole clan were musicians." he says. He also did some professional boxing, which is not surprising, given his impressive height and solid physique. "I continued to box even after I finished the army, but I couldn't earn enough money." he remembers, "So, I returned to music."

He was playing the clarinet onstage with his brother when the great accordionist Ivan Milev heard him. Milev immediately invited him to join his own orchestra, which played Bulgarian Slavic music, but suggested that Yunakov switch to the saxophone. "I liked the saxophone, but I never thought I'd play it!" Yunakov comments, "When I was younger, I had a saxophone, but I used it very little. Ivan Milev said, 'You can become a great saxophone player, but you have to play only the saxophone, not the clarinet.'" Milev drilled him in technique for hours on end. "We would rehearse from 8:00 in the morning until midnight! Milev explained the ornamentation and so on, and everything became clear to me. I was ready for the stage after one month. When I made my debut, the audiences were amazed!"

But Turkish Rom music was still in his blood and would not be denied. In 1983, Yunakov joined forces with the renowned clarinetist, Ivo Papasov, and plunged into the burgeoning "wedding music" movement. "Wedding music" style evolved during the '70s from a heated confluence of Indian, Turkish, Arabic, Rrom (Gypsy), and Balkan traditions, plus imported western styles such as jazz and rock. The freedom of the style appealed to Yunakov as much as finally being able to utilize his Rom roots. "Of course, there's been music for weddings forever, but my particular style combines a lot of staccato technique with legato notes in a very interesting way." he says, "Before that, nobody had done that with a saxophone." The freshness of the music, plus the rebelliousness implied by the bands' use of amplified instruments, appealed to the youthful counterculture. The Papasov-Yunakov band attracted a fanatical following. "I worked with Ivo for about ten years." he says, "We've done a lot together, the good, the bad, the ugly. We were chased after together. We've been at the top of the world and the bottom. I achieved my highest degree of technique with Ivo."

Without improvisation, my music doesn't exist!
"Wedding music" players were the focus of crushing official disfavor, sharing this dubious honor with jazz musicians. Asked about the jazz flavor that sometimes turns up in his music, Yunakov insists that, while he admires jazz, he is not a jazz player. "Before the 1989 revolution, jazz music was also prohibited in Bulgaria and some of the best musicians went to jail. I had colleagues who were jazz musicians. I would go over to their houses and we would listen to bootleg cassettes. That's when I heard jazz, during this period of prohibition. It was very interesting when I heard jazz for the first time. It was something new and that's why I used it in my music." He leans forward earnestly, "But I want you to understand that I only use elements of jazz. I'm not a jazz musician in the American style." However, he notes that improvisation is crucial to both styles, along with complex time signatures and unusual tunings. "It's very, very important!" he says, "Without improvisation, my music doesn't exist!" He says that Klezmer music is not a major influence on his playing, but he is very aware of it. "I work with two Jewish women, so how could I not know anything about it? Lauren (keyboard player-vocalist Brody) plays Jewish music a lot."

As reactionary Bulgarian Socialists attempted to foist demure folk ensembles on the public, the hunger for "wedding music" became insatiable. When word of a performance by a favorite band leaked out, thousands of gate-crashers crippled traffic patterns for miles around, while the police repeatedly fined, arrested and then released the offending musicians. "Before the revolution in 1989, the situation was really terrible." says Yunakov, " I had been in jail! We felt like house mice, like the lowest kind of criminals, being hounded for playing Rom music!" Eventually, the powers that be bowed to the inevitable and set up regulated festivals, where former official censors were now in the ludicrous position of awarding prizes to their erstwhile adversaries! Once the Eastern Bloc broke up, "wedding music" was free to blossom in Bulgaria and to influence trends elsewhere in Europe and beyond. "After the revolution, it was still a quite a serious situation for a few years. Now things are much more free; and in fact, "wedding music" is heard all over! Rom music making an impact on popular music as well.," Yunakov asserts.

cd cover Since his move to the USA , he has released two well-received CDs on the Traditional Crossroads label. "Now our second CD is out." he says proudly, "We are very indebted to Harold Hagopian (of Traditional Crossroads). I want you to know that!" The Yuri Yunakov Ensemble was included in the recent "Gypsy Caravan" tour, which was the first hearing of live "wedding music" for most Americans. Yunakov is taking some steps to preserve his work for posterity. "I don't write music, but Neshko Neshev, the accordionist in my orchestra, does. It's all in my head. If I want to remember something, I use a cassette player to record it."

Making a home for his wife and two children is also a major preoccupation. "America has given me strength and love. If this weren't true, I wouldn't be here." He says emphatically, "I have two desires. The first one is that I want put together a really good orchestra, to succeed, to get concerts, and to become well known. The other one is for my children. I want them to become well-educated and to succeed in America." He feels that he is on the way to realizing these cherished goals. "I'm very happy, absolutely pleased with my life. I have work, my children are in good schools, and my wife is a housewife. I've got a lot of friends and I like my colleagues very much." He smiles, "Now I have my own "university"! People come to me to learn!" He is thrilled by the enthusiasm of his American audiences. "I invite them to come and listen to me. My music is like an appetizer, to entice people to hear more. I'm offering the music, and the music is the last word."

I would like to thank to Carol Silverman for her invaluable assistance in the preparation of this article. - CR
Yuri Yunakov's recordings are available from Traditional Crossroads


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