Saxophonist Yuri Yunakov was born in Haskovo, southeastern Bulgaria, of Turkish Romani (Gypsy) ancestry and currently lives in the New York City area. He comes from a long line of musicians in his extended family, including his father and grandfather and his uncles and brother. Yuri’s career began with the band Mladost and he later started a 10-year collaboration with Ivo Papazov and Trakija.
Yuri is Bulgaria’s most famous saxophonist. Together with the Trakija orchestra Yunakov played at hundreds of weddings in his native Bulgaria, and toured extensively in Europe and North America.
In 1989 he was featured on NBC TV with saxophonist David Sanborn. Yuri appears on the recording “Gypsy Fire”, a CD of Turkish music on Traditional Crossroads.
In 1994, Yunakov moved to the United States. He is the director of the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble, and is in great demand among the Bulgarian, Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, Armenian and Romani communities in the New York City area.
In 2011, Yunakov received a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship.
A term like “Eastern European music” gets bandied about by many, including me. It’s one of those convenient generalizations used to cover a category that’s more than a category. From folkloric traditions and age-old ballads to mighty brass bands and fusions that were free to happen in post-communist societies, there’s a lot to take in.
Bilja Krstic and the Bistrik Orchestra offer up Svod: Traditional Songs from Serbia and The Balkans (ARC Music, 2016). I remain unclear as to how many pieces constitutes an orchestra, but this outfit’s 9-strong lineup (plus guest players) proceeds with delightful zest through a set of mainly traditional tunes that retain the heartfelt sevdah (Balkan blues) intent and add enough rhythmic swing to lift the spirits and stir the hips.
Krstic’s soaring (but never overbearing) vocals are a marvel in settings of both sparse accompaniment that lets the emotional content sink in and full band buildups often jazz-like in the way they flow. At times sporting a serenity that seems to stop all else before breaking into a dance-inducing left turn, this highly satisfying collection succeeds on those levels and more, including one spine-tingling a capella track.
In rather stark contrast stands Put (Geenger Records, 2016) by the Zagreb-based trio of Franolic, Jovanovic and Culap. The three play oud (Arabic lute), harmonica and percussion respectively, and while there’s a Balkan sensibility running through their rhythms and melodies, influences from Turkey, India and anywhere blues and jazz have permeated are evident as well.
The oud and harmonica shadow each other with a symbiosis that lets them both take turns slinking or springing forward to take the lead as the percussion (primarily frame drum and ceramic udu) marks changes in time and mood and does some leading of its own. Put has got atmosphere to spare, but there’s a core to this music that’s covertly fierce and passionate. Consider it essential listening.
Of course, klezmer -that celebratory brand of Jewish music rooted in the 19th century and well able to get the heart pounding here in the 21st- is one sort of Eastern European music that’s immediately identified with the region and the people who created it. The Klezmatics have been foremost in keeping the sound alive for 30 years and they’re unlikely to stop anytime soon, which is good news for all of us. On Apikorsim/Heretics (World Village, 2016) the band is as crazy cool and ingeniously mad as ever, harnessing their arsenal of brass, reeds, violin, viola, accordion, guitar, bass, piano, organ, harmonium, kaval, tsimbl, drums, percussion and vocals (dang, that’s a lot of instruments when you consider there’s only 6 people in the band) to create Yiddish songs that are lively and infectious almost beyond belief.
Just as important, they see to it that klezmer’s roots as music of an enduring, vibrant culture are not overlooked in serious or humorous terms. So while songs like “May Redemption Come” and “Who Guides the Ships?” are sincere in their spiritual perspective and “My Mother’s Mirror” pulls no punches on the reality of aging, there’s room for a gastronomically indulgent “Party in Odessa” and a close examination on the title track of exactly what makes happy heretics happy. The Klezmatics are in prime form, playing music they’ve not only mastered but obviously continue to love very deeply.
headline photo: Bilja Krstic and the Bistrik Orchestra
Jaakko Laitinen & Väärä Raha – Näennäinen (Playground Music, 2016)
Jaakko Laitinen and his band Väärä Raha hail from Lapland in northern Finland and they have a fascination with nostalgic Roma and Balkan music, brass band music, and other musical traditions such as Finnish tango and humppa, as well as Russian and Greek love songs.
Most of the material performed by Jaakko Laitinen & Väärä Raha is original, ranging from old fashioned love songs to progressively fast brass music.
The lineup includes Jaakko Laitinen on vocals; Marko Roininen on accordion; Jarkko Niemelä on trumpet, bouzouki and altohorn; Tuomo Kuure on double bass; and Janne Hast on drums.
Guests featured: Bjonko Stoisic on clarinet; Morgan Nickolay on balalaika; Matti Pitkänen on violin; Tuomas Timonen on percussion; Valtteri Bruun on guitar, mandolin, ukulele and synthesizer.
When music listeners and explorers gather formally to further their fascination, there are always two or three performers too intense for most ears. One hears whispers in the listening space as those who recognize the act about to begin caution those around them that this may be a time to visit the lobby or concession stand, to go outside to smoke or check messages. “Oh God, this guy will put you to sleep,” or “They’re saying something, but I don’t know what,” one hears from the row ahead or behind. These are the acts that are overwhelming for many.
The truly musically curious, however, remain in the concert space and pay all the more attention, both to the stage and to the other attendees who have remained in their seats. The acts that elicit this preliminary response in the audience are those who separate the fans from the ethnomusicologists. Meet Serbian composer Srdjan Beronja. His label’s press release explains that he “travel[s] to remote locations and records unusual local sounds from desert townships, coastal villages and the dawn chorus high up in trees.” On this CD, these field recordings “from the geographical triangle between India, the Middle East and the Balkans” are used to introduce and provide audio beds for some of the cuts, thus merging the artist’s fascination with natural sounds and his musicianship.
He works with a number of renowned players of instruments typifying tour stops along the way from the Balkans through the Middle East to India and back, with expressive results. This is not a consistent album to be played as background music at a cocktail party or curry house, but more akin to a visit to a good art gallery where a broad spectrum of visual artists is on display.
“Sounds of the East Music from The Balkans, India & The Middle East” is a beautiful collection for collectors.
Ara Dinkjian is an Armenian born in the United States in 1958. His earliest professional musical experience was accompanying his father Onnik Dinkjian, a renowned Armenian folk and liturgical singer.
Ara learned several western and eastern instruments (piano, guitar, darbuka, clarinet) and in 1980 graduated from the Hartt College of Music, earning the country’s first and only special degree in the instrument for which he has become most well-known, the oud. For the past 35 years, he has continued his post as organist in the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Throughout his musical life, Ara has continued to develop his highly personal compositional style which blends his eastern and western roots. In 1985, to help realize these compositions and musical concepts, Ara formed his instrumental quartet, Night Ark, which recorded four CDs for RCA/BMG and Universal/PolyGram.
Night Ark’s recordings and concert tours were highly influential for musicians and music lovers throughout the world because they demonstrated how music can move forward while still retaining the dignity and soul of one’s culture.
These compositions have had a universal appeal; his songs have been recorded by world famous instrumentalists and singers in thirteen different languages, demonstrating that music does indeed unite people and cultures. His hit song “Dinata, Dinata” was performed at the closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympics. Many of his compositions have appeared in movie and television soundtracks.
Ara is also considered one of the best oud players in the world, with a very personal style that emphasizes his uniquely beautiful tone. He has appeared throughout the world on concert stages, oud festivals, seminars, and master classes.
His CDs ‘An Armenian In America’, ‘Voice Of Armenians’, and ‘Peace On Earth’ were recorded live at the 2005, 2006, and 2007 Jerusalem International Oud Festivals.
In 2010, Ara Dinkjian formed The Secret Trio, along with clariner virtuoso Ismail Lumanovski (New York Gypsy All-Stars) and qanun maestro Tamer Pinarbasi. The ensemble performs Turkish, Balkan Roma (Gypsy) and Armenian music.
He continues to compose, perform, record, and teach, while creating his own unique musical landscape.
Balkan Beat Box (BBB) blends electronic music, hip hop beats, and hard-edged folk music from the Balkans, North Africa, and the Middle East.
BBB is a natural reaction of musicians who wanted to erase political borders (our ears don’t have them, why should we, as one band member put it). A band of New Yorkers, Israelis, Africans, and Bulgarians, led by ex-Gogol Bordello member Ori Kaplan and Firewater / Big Lazy’s Tamir Muskat, BBB brings together music, video projections, and a rotating cast of guests including the Bulgarian Chicks, Victoria Hannah, Jeremiah Lockwood, gnawa player Hasan Ben Nafar, Israeli MC Tomer Yosef, and more.
Ori Kaplan and Tamir Muskat have lived in New York City for over ten years, where they led a new scene of underground immigrant-based music (J.U.F Jewish Ukrainian Friendship and Gogol Bordello), which was based on the idea of taking ethnic music and modernizing it for contemporary audiences. Balkan Beat Box is a progression of this style of music, taking a worldly approach to the music of their ancestors, and evolving it to include not only the region of the world that they personally emigrated from, but also to incorporate the musical styles from their parents and grandparents birthplaces.
As Israelis born to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Ori and Tamir learned their ancestors’ Eastern European music while surrounded by the music of the Middle East. Through their own migration to the United States, the blend of Eastern European and Middle Eastern music was transformed again. What emerged was a blend of musical cultures; traditional sounds from two distinct parts of the world have been melded together with modern instruments and beats, to create a musical genre displaying their multinational roots.
The band’s fifth studio album, Shout It Out, was recorded in Vibromonk in East Tel Aviv. New influences include ‘ghettotech’, bluegrass, and pop.
The Secret Trio is set to perform at Roulette on Saturday, December 3, 2016. The Secret Trio is an ensemble featuring three remarkable musicians rooted in Turkish, Balkan Roma (Gypsy) and Armenian music. The three artists came together to create a new form of chamber music. Not bound by a single tradition, they perform original pieces and traditional melodies that incorporate the microtonal modes and improvisation of the Middle East, dance rhythms of the Balkans, and elements of jazz, rock, and classical music.
The trio includes Ismail Lumanovski, a virtuoso clarinetist and member of the New York Gypsy All-Stars; Tamer Pinarbasi, a master kanun (zither) player and a member of the New York Gypsy All-Stars; and Ara Dinkjian, one of the world’s finest ud (fretless lute) players, who is best known as the founder of the highly influential and groundbreaking instrumental group Night Ark.
The Secret Trio was formed in 2010 and has two albums on the Traditional Crossroads label: Soundscapes (2012) and Three of Us (2015).
Roulette, 509 Atlantic Ave at 3rd Ave near BAM & Barclays Center, Brooklyn
Tickets at robertbrowningassociates.com
Tickets: $30; seniors, students $26
This compilation intends to provide a look at some of the music made currently in Vienna, Austria’s capital. The collection features different genres. Pop in German-language and cabaret style songs dominate Radio Vienna, although there is also Klezmer, folk-pop and jazz.
The highlights include the German language jazz crooning of Willy Landl; the slow tempo blues guitar of Alex Miksch Trio; and the Balkan-rooted world music sound of award-winning female ensemble Madame Baheux.
The Džambo Aguševi Orchestra is an exciting Balkan brass orchestra led by Macedonia’s trumpet king, Džambo Aguševi. Unlike other brass well-known brass bands that focus on traditional material, the Džambo Aguševi Orchestra mixes Balkan Gypsy music with Latin jazz, Flamenco, Caribbean beats and other global influences.
The lineup on the album includes Džambo Agušev on trumpet and vocals; Džemal Agušev on trumpet and vocals; Kočo Agušev on trumpet; Sunaj Mustafov on trumpet; Ali Zekirov on tenor horn; Elvijan Demirovski on on tenor horn; Džafer Fazliov on tenor horn; Šukri Abdulov on tuba and helicon; Orfej Čakalovski on goč (large double-headed drum) and Nedjat Redjepov on drums.
Guests include: Sedat Sedo on tarabuka; Azat Mehmedov on clarinet and saxophone; Mishel Trajkovski on accordion; Rumen Kamburozv on vocals; Senad Suta on drums; and Brano Jakubovic on electronics.
Brass Like it Hot is an irresistible brass band album.
Afenginn is a Balkan-Scandinavian quintet from Denmark featuring mandolin, clarinets, violin, electric bass and drums. Virtuosic and original, they categorize their style as folk-based bastard-ethno.
Afenginn has collaborated with American trumpeter Frank London, whose prolific career as musician, bandleader, composer and producer with The Klezmatics, among others, and quirky experiments with jazz and Gypsy traditions, are a good match for the band’s trajectory.