Yuri Yunakov

Balada - Bulgarian Wedding Music

Traditional Crossroads CD 4291

Yuri Yunakov, resident in New York since 1994, was formerly the alto saxophonist in Ivo Papasov's band, Trakija, who were the leading and most innovatory exponents of wedding music in Bulgaria during the seventies and afterwards.  Wedding music mixes regional folk music with the sounds of India, Arabia, Gypsy music, jazz and rock, and is played at breakneck speed and with formidable technical prowess; it's necessary to be able to improvise on a horo for up to six hours straight!  Wedding music was initially banned by the Communist authorities, but it proved unstoppable, and eventually the government tried the time-honoured tactic of control by co-option, setting up the National Festival of Bulgarian Instrumental Music at Stambolovo.  Trakija won first prize at the third festival in 1986, and were then banned from competing because they would have won every time.

Also a member of Trakija alongside Yunakov was accordionist Neshko Neshev, who appears on this CD; the other musicians are dumbek player Seido Salifoski, who emigrated from Macedonia to the USA as a boy, and three Americans, Catherine Foster (clarinet), Lauren Brody (synthesiser and vocals) and Carol Silverman (vocals).  This is obviously not your typical Bulgarian wedding band.  Yunakov and Salifoski are in constant demand among the Balkan and Middle Eastern expatriate communities in New York, but I approached the disc wondering how authentic a band that was 50 per cent outsiders could be.  Foster also plays trumpet with the Zlatne Uste Balkan Brass Band, and Brody and Silverman have both spent many years researching and performing in Bulgaria.  (Brody compiled the magnificent CD Song of the Crooked Dance (Yazoo 7016) from Bulgarian 78s, a project that took place in challenging circumstances.)  I don't doubt their commitment to the music, or to Bulgaria's people and culture, but even so, listening to this CD proved to be something of a disappointing experience.

Lauren Brody writes in the notes that "contemporary wedding singing is performed with a distinct warble which closely imitates instrumental ornamentation", and this wide vibrato may be heard to good effect in the singing of Maria Karafizieva with Ivo Papasov's band, on Orpheus Ascending and Balkanology (Hannibal HNCD 1346 and 1363 respectively.)  It has to be said that by contrast, the singing on Balada appears unimpassioned, cautious, and learned rather than lived.   The last two lines of one song mean 'I can't live without her, without her I will die;'  Whether or not that's as tired a cliché in Bulgarian as it is in English, one can't help feeling that the singer might as well be asking when the next train leaves for Sofia.  It is brave to note that Astargya o horo "is from the repertoire of Dzhansever, a female singer of enormous stature, whose singing is capable of reducing entire audiences to tears."  There's no danger of that here.

In Papasov's band, the lead instrument is his clarinet, but in this lineup, the clarinet takes a very subsidiary role to the leader's saxophone, and to Neshkov's accordion.  As a consequence, the tone colours of the arrangements are more blurred, and the melody lines less well-defined, less able to cut through the dense harmonies; the result is too often a murky chordal soup.  The synthesiser does duty in place of the electric guitar and electric bass, and is also used to augment Salifoski's dumbek.  Fine percussionist though Salifoski is, it is just not possible to programme a machine to swing, and too often the giddy, galloping compound rhythms of Bulgarian music are reduced to a robotic marching on the spot, as in the 5/16 paidushko featured here.

Any of the CDs mentioned in this review would make more rewarding listening than this one.

Chris Smith - 2.4.99

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