Yuri Yunakov is a Turkish-Bulgarian Roma musician, who is famous for participating in the development of Bulgarian wedding music, and introducing it to the United States. He grew up in Thrace where he started playing as a boy, sitting in with his fathers band. He eventually took up the clarinet, the same instrument as his father. After serving in the army he was a professional boxer, but music turned out to be more lucrative. He was invited to participate with the band of accordionist Ivan Milev, on the condition that he took up the saxophone instead of the clarinet. He trained intensively on the saxophone for a month before his first appearance with Milev's band. Milev's band played Slavic music and Yunakov eventually wished to return to his roots and did so in 1983 when he started to play with the wedding band of Ivo Papazov, also a Turkish-Roma virtuoso. In Socialist Bulgaria Roma music was considered anti-Bulgarian and consequently stigmatized, and musicians playing it were a target of government repression. Jazz music was also prohibited and Yunakov started experimenting with both.
Yunakov is a recipient of a 2011 National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the United States' highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.