Yuri Yunakov, superstar of the saxophone, was born in Haskovo, Bulgaria, in 1958. He has received much critical acclaim. In 2011 Yunakov received a National Heritage Fellowship Award from the US National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honour for an American folk musician.
A self-taught virtuoso, Yunakov comes from a family of Muslim Turkish-speaking Romani musicians, who include his father, grandfather, uncles and brother.
He catapulted to international fame for his pioneering work in Bulgarian ‘wedding music’ with Ivo Papasov and their legendary band Trakiya, which attracted thousands of fans and hundreds of imitators. Their music showcases virtuosic technique, electrifying improvisation, rapid tempi, daring key changes and eclectic musical literacy.
Wedding music owes its name to its ubiquitous presence at life-cycle celebrations, such as weddings, baptisms and circumcisions, where dancing and music are a requirement. It is known for its haunting melodies, dense ornamentation and complex rhythmic patterns.
Yunakov emigrated to New York in 1994 and formed the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble, which has toured widely in Europe and the US, including concerts at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the National Folk Festival and the Monterey World Music Festival.
Yunakov is featured in the 2016 Canadian documentary about the saxophone, The Devils’ Horn, and has made several albums on the Traditional Crossroads label. He is in constant demand from Albanian, Turkish, Armenian, Bulgarian, Macedonian and Balkan Romani communities in the New York area and also performs at the club Mehanata.
In Bulgaria during the 1970s and 1980s, Romani wedding music was officially suppressed by the socialist government but thrived in private settings as a means of countercultural expression. During this period, Yunakov was one of the leading stars who fought to continue performing for Romani and non-Romani audiences alike; he even went to jail for playing this music.
The popularity of wedding music has grown across the Balkans and the genre draws enthusiastic audiences in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and the US. This tradition-bending music includes nods to jazz and rock, with frenetic time signatures and wild improvisations played out as show-stopping duels between Yunakov and his ensemble, creating music that has made him a legend in Bulgaria since the 1970s.