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Yuri Yunakov Ensemble

Yuri Yunakov, saxophone; Catherine Foster, clarinet/trumpet/saxophone/vocals; Kalin Kirilov, guitar/accordion/vocals; Seido Salifoski, tarabuka (goblet drum)

The Yuri Yunakov Ensemble performs South Slavic and Romani (Gypsy) folk music from the Balkans, renowned for its haunting melodies, dense ornamentation, complex rhythms, and stunning improvisations. The geographical position of the Balkans in southeastern Europe and hundreds of years of Ottoman Turkish rule have created a wealth of influences from both East and West. The ensemble plays in a contemporary style called "wedding music", named for its ubiquitous presence at life cycle celebrations such as weddings, baptisms, and circumcisions where dancing and music are a requirement. This style, which gained popularity in the 1970’s, emphasizes virtuosic technique, improvisation, rapid tempos, daring key changes, and eclectic musical literacy. A multiplicity of styles, such as jazz and rock, and a multiplicity of sources, such as Turkish and Indian musics, are combined with Balkan rural and urban folk musics. In Bulgaria, "wedding music," while officially suppressed by the socialist government, thrived in private settings as a means of countercultural expression.

The Ensemble’s program weaves a texture of both instrumental and vocal music from contrasting regions of the Balkans performed in the Bulgarian and Romani (Gypsy) languages. Texts express the experiences of village and urban living and the joys and sorrows of life. The Romani (Gypsy) repertoire highlights the popular dance form "kjuchek" and songs reflecting the marginalization of Roma from mainstream society. Roma, an ethnic group originally from India have played a central role in the professional folk music of every country of the Balkans.

The founder of the Ensemble, Yuri Yunakov played with Ivo Papazov for over ten years. With Ivo Papazov’s band, Yuri made many European tours, and and toured throughout North America and Australia to enthusiastic crowds. Yuri Yunakov formed his own Ensemble in New York City in 1995 which has toured widely in the United States and Australia. They have performed at the Clearwater Festival, WOMAD, Folk Parks, and the Telstra Adelaide Festival. In 1999 they toured with the World Music Institute’s "Gypsy Caravan" throughout North America. In the last few years they have performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the July 4th Concert at the Washington Monument, the Lowell, Massachusetts Festival, the National Folk Festival in East Lansing, Michigan, the Chicago World Music Festival, Bucknell University, the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, the Museum of Civilization, Toronto, the Balkanalia Festival, Italy, and they have also toured Poland, Germany, and Denmark.

Traditional Crossroads has produced three CD’s of the ensemble, "New Colors in Bulgarian Wedding Music" (1997), "Balada" (1999), and "Roma Variations" (2001). The Ensemble is also featured on the collections "The Gypsy Road" (Alula) and "New York City: Global Beat of the Boroughs" (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings). Several members of the Ensemble are featured on the new Traditional Crossroads CD “Together Again “Legends of Bulgarian Wedding Music.”

Performer Biographies

Yuri Yunakov (saxophone) was born in 1958 in Haskovo, Bulgaria, of Turkish Romani ancestry and currently lives in the New York City area. He hails from a long line of musicians in his extended family, including his father and grandfather and his uncles and brother. Yunakov’s career began with his family’s band, followed by the band Mladost; interspersed were a boxing career and championship. He subsequently began a ten-year collaboration with Ivo Papasov and Trakiya, playing at hundreds of weddings in his native Bulgaria, and touring extensively in Europe and North America. In 1989 Yunakov was featured on NBC TV with saxophonist David Sanborn. In addition to the recordings of the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble, the Traditional Crossroads catalog includes Yunakov’s performance on Gypsy Fire, a popular CD of Turkish music. Yunakov is in great demand among the Bulgarian, Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, Armenian and Romani communities in the New York City area.

Catherine Foster (clarinet, trumpet, saxophone, vocals) is an accomplished Balkan musician in many genres and the protégé of Yuri Yunakov. She began playing music at a young age and quickly mastered several instruments. Catherine is a leading member of New York City’s Zlatne Uste Balkan Brass Band which performs regularly on the east coast. She is also a co-founder of the vocal ensemble Urban Women/Village Songs. In 1990 and 2003 she participated in the brass band festival in Guca, Serbia, and in 2005 she participated in the Surdulica, Serbia, brass band festival. She is also featured on the Zlatne Uste CD’s "No Strings Attached" and "In the Center of the Village."

Kalin Kirilov (guitar, accordion, vocals) was born in the village of Pokraina, near Vidin, in 1975 of Vlach ancestry and is presently a doctoral student in music theory at the University of Oregon. In 2003 he received an MA in Folklore, also from Oregon. He began to sing and play the accordion at the age of four and received his first gold medal in 1981 at the Koprivshtitsa festival, followed by a silver medal at the Sixth Republican Festival, two gold medals at the Seventh Republican Festival, and a bronze medal at the Koprivstica Festival in 1986. A master of multiple instruments, including accordion, tambura, keyboard, ocarina and duduk (flutes), he graduated from the Academy of Music and Dance in Plovdiv in 1998 with a specialization in tambura and music pedagogy. He has recorded with Bulgarian National Radio, performed with the Danube Ensemble and the Folk Band Lyra, and currently plays with Trio Slavej.

Seido Salifoski (tarabuka), was born in Prilep, Macedonia, in 1960 of Romani ancestry and came to the United States at the age of seven. He is a well-known percussionist in the New York area who has performed for Balkan and Middle Eastern community celebrations for over 20 years. He is featured on several Macedonian and Albanian recordings and regularly performs with ney player Omar Faruk Tekbilek. He is known for his inventive drum improvisations which masterfully complement the melody. Salifoski is featured on the 1997 and 1999 albums of the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble. He regularly tours nationally and internationally with The Paradox Trio, and recently founded his own band, Romski Boji.