Yuri Yunakov | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Yuri Yunakov

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Incorporating influences from around the globe is especially fashionable in American music right now, but there's nothing new—or particularly American—about the impulse to knock down ethnic and geographic barriers in the name of a good tune. As a member of Ivo Papasov's great Bulgarian band and, since moving to New York in 1994, as a leader of his own superb ensemble, Yuri Yunakov has devoted his career to reconciling and recombining eastern European regional styles. Papasov's two U.S. recordings and an appearance on the short-lived TV show Night Music first introduced this country to Bulgarian wedding music, which is actually a wild and woolly amalgam of Rom, or Gypsy, music and Bulgarian, Turkish, Macedonian, and Serbian folk styles. It's marked by zigzagging unison melodies, leaps between complex time signatures, and high-flying improvisation, and it's frequently performed at breakneck speeds. In the 70s, as the Bulgarian government attempted to "purify" the culture (Yunakov, a Turkish-speaking Rom from the Thrace region, was jailed several times for playing Rom music), this music stubbornly blossomed; private celebrations like weddings became the safest places to perform it, and people would occasionally crash them just to hear it. Yunakov's most recent album, Roma Variations (Traditional Crossroads), is the most fluid and electrifying of his three U.S. recordings, and some of the credit must go to his accordion player, Ivan Milev—a legend in his own right who discovered Yunakov back in Bulgaria in the early 80s and persuaded him to focus on the sax. The group is rounded out by clarinetist Catherine Foster (of the Zlatne Uste Balkan Brass Band), percussionist Georgi Petrov, and keyboardist Lauren Brody. The first concert is at a Bulgarian restaurant; the second is part of the city's Winterdance series and will begin with an hour-long dance lesson by local eastern European folk music authority John Parrish. Saturday, February 23, 9 PM, Rodopa, 7150 W. Grand; 773-889-6088. Sunday, February 24, 2 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-742-4007.

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