Saxophone virtuoso Yuri Yunakov is an undisputed star of Bulgarian Wedding Music, the dazzling style that emerged in the 1970s when Bulgarian Gypsy artists combined Roma (Gypsy), Balkan, and Turkish folk musics with western jazz and rock. His electrifying playing makes it seem, The New York Times has said, “as if Bulgaria’s national drink were rocket-fuel!”
From a long line of Turkish Romani musicians, Yuri Yunakov began his career playing kaval (wooden flute), tupan (two-headed drum), and clarinet in his family’s band. He took up the saxophone in his early 20s at the urging of the great bandleader Ivan Milev. In1983, Yunakov joined forces with the legendary “King of Wedding Music,” Ivo Papasov; their groundbreaking band Trakija became so famous that thousands of fans crashed weddings at which they performed. Because of its Gypsy associations and “foreign” elements, the music was banned by Bulgaria’s socialist government. Band members were arrested and served jail sentences with forced labor. Official oppression only served to increase its popularity and eventual acceptance as the modern folk music of Bulgaria.
In 1994 Yunakov immigrated to the U.S. and founded the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble. In 2011, he became the first Balkan artist to win a National Heritage Fellowship, our nation’s highest honor for traditional artists.