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A Bright Thread In The Fabric of New York
Marty Lipp talks with some of the city’s immigrant artists Yuri Yunakov, Naji Youssef, Mirita Halili and Raif Hyseni

Like most immigrants to this country, they come ready to work long, sweat-filled hours. But émigré musicians have composed their own take on the immigrants’ refrain. These immigrants take up horns instead of hammers and sit down at keyboards instead of sewing machines, but they still come to America to be free and to be free to earn the rewards commensurate with their hard work. These immigrants don’t blend into the fabric of society like so many others; instead they form a bright thread that leads directly back to their native lands.

cd cover “The feeling of nostalgia is mutual for them [the audience] and myself,” said saxophone player Yuri Yunakov, who moved to The Bronx from Bulgaria in 1994. For each of the many ethnic groups in the New York area, there are musicians who fill glitzy wedding halls and smoky nightclubs with rousing rhythms and a bittersweet taste of home. Their music was recently anthologized on “New York City Global Beat of the Boroughs,” a double-CD set on Smithsonian Folkways label and produced by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance.

Yunakov packed his instruments and family for the U.S. after years of harassment from both authorities and mobsters. By that time, he had established a rock-star-like reputation for playing the frenetic style called Bulgarian wedding music, so he felt confident he would be able to earn a living in the states.

Already fluent in several musical styles, he learned even more. Any weekend might find Yunakov playing at an Estonian, Turkish, Armenian or Greek wedding. And though he also performs at concert halls now, he is most in his element when he can let it rip for a party. “I feel like I’m flying when I’m playing for dancers,” he said.

Yuri Yunakov
©Traditional Crossroads
The typical six-hour wedding here in America, he said, is nothing compared to those he played when he was a rising star in Bulgaria. There, a one-day wedding (as opposed to those that were several days) would begin at 8 a.m. and go through the next morning, he recalled. Asked if it was the band that called it quits after those many hours, the burly former boxer said definitively “The dancers always go down first.”

While Yunakov has been able to make a living solely as a performer, recently releasing his third album, “Roma Variations” (Traditional Crossroads), other émigré musicians wear various hats to make ends meet.

Naji Youssef
©2001 Folkways
Naji Youssef, a singer who emigrated from war-ravaged Lebanon in 1988, performs concerts with the Near Eastern Music Ensemble, which plays classical Arabic styles. But he also sings at parties and on Sunday mornings at the Virgin Mary Church in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and has a day job as an architectural-model builder.

Youssef said his and his family’s ties to the U.S. are too strong now for him to think about returning to his homeland, but he says, “Lebanon is in my heart always.” While he once dreamed of being a famous singer, Youssef said, “Sometimes it’s hard to get through all your dreams. Thank God I got most of my dreams.”

Mirita Halili was called the “Queen of Albanian Music” as a singer with prestigious state-organized ensembles. But with the fall of communism and the rise of chaos in the Balkans, she won a green card lottery and came to the U.S. with her husband, accordion player Raif Hyseni, a native of Kosova.

With Halili pregnant with their second child, Hyseni worked two jobs and went back to college. “In the beginning, it was hard,” recalled Hyseni. Now, he said, they are settled and “I’m like Americans... work, work, work.”

Whereas Halili once had a state bureaucracy handling her career and sang for rapt concert halls, now Hyseni is her manager, accompanist and producer and the two drive themselves to perform at Albanian and Balkan parties throughout the region.

Despite the musical differences among the Balkan regions, the couple play it all. They perform former hits such as “I Miss My Mother” or “I Took My Bag,” so their audiences are as likely to get choked up as to get up and dance.

Halili said listeners approach her after a set and say, “Now, I’m thinking I’m in Tirana....It’s wonderful.”

Her husband added that nostalgia-suffused party-goers will say, “We have everything, but we’re not happy.” Hyseni and Halili plan to stay in the U.S., but the memories of their homeland are strong. “You even miss the mud from your country.” - Marty Lipp

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