Echoes of the Revolution

Post-Socialism and the Performing Arts

States of the Former Soviet Union and its Satellites
Albanian Accordionist Raif Hyseni

2022 will mark the 100th Anniversary of one of the defining moments of the 20th century – the creation of the Soviet Union. With the perspective of 25 years since the USSR’s breakup in 1991 (and 27 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall), the project partners — Center for Art, Tradition and Cultural Heritage, Center for Traditional Music and Dance, City Lore and Direct Cultural Access — found an opportune moment to document the stories of professional immigrant artists who learned traditional arts within the Soviet Union and its allied socialist states, and introduce public audiences to the cultural contributions of recent immigrants to the US from post-socialist nations.When documenting art traditions of former socialist republics, it is important to note the distinction between state-sanctioned folk arts and grassroots traditions that emerged despite heavy policing of cultural expression. Through a network of folklore specialists, “state“ folklore was created to supplement “authentic” folklore. However, these determinations of what constituted culture in the newly established USSR and throughout Eastern Europe did not emerge from a vacuum nor were they new conceptions. Cultures within the Soviet Union had long histories of negotiating meaning through contact with multiple communities. And in many cases, the heavy-handed manner in which the Soviet bureaucracy sought to control culture had the unintended consequence of promoting unsanctioned expressions.

Ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin demonstrates the power of continuity of meaning in the face of these top -down forces on culture, especially in relation to Bukharian court music (shashmaqam) in Central Asia: “[as] a remnant of the “feudal” past, the Russian authorities felt this tradition was negative and should be silenced,” writes Slobin in Retuning Culture: Musical Changes in Central and Eastern Europe (1996). “Yet the logic of the social order of the republics left a space for local cultural management, and the shashmaqam not only survived but was even enshrined as a key component of Uzbek identity in the cultural renaissance of the late Soviet period.”
Iskra Ukrainian Dance Ensemble

This process was replicated in different ways throughout the Soviet Union and the socialist states of Eastern Europe, where universalist culture gave way to very specific socialist definitions of national culture. In states like Bulgaria, as ethnomusicologist Carol Silverman has documented, this meant that the definition of Bulgarian music was strictly policed and did not include contributions from Romani musicians or other ethnic minorities.

Today, New York is home to the world’s largest population of Soviet emigres outside of the territories of the former USSR, as well as from former socialist countries such as Albania, Poland and Georgia, making it an ideal locale for this program. The 2010 census estimated 210,000 Russian-speakers in the city (not including the wider metropolitan area), with hundreds of thousands more living in families of Soviet emigres.  Using this wealth of resources, the partners are well-positioned to explore how diverse communities have transformed the cultural fabric of the city and cleared space for their own agency and expressive identity. By collaborating with and documenting the performing arts traditions of two generations of post-Soviet communities, we have undertaken to gauge how themes of identity, migration, and assimilation impact immigrants’ everyday lives in the face of rapid change and modernization, and further the American public’s understanding and appreciation of the rich multicultural history of a large and strategically important region.

Featured Artists:


Cheres has been hailed to be “the best purveyor of authentic Ukrainian folk music in the United States.”The ensemble brings to life melodies from the Carpathian Mountains in Western Ukraine and neighboring Eastern European countries. Since its founding in 1990 by Andriy Milavsky and other students from the Kyiv State Conservatory, the ensemble has enthralled North American audiences with their rousing music. “Cheres” is a Ukrainian term for a metal- studded leather belt used as a protective vest during the Middle Ages, which the group adopted as their name to symbolize the safeguarding of vanishing folk traditions from the Carpathian Mountains. Iskra Ukrainian Dance Ensemble and Academy was founded in 1996 by renowned choreographer Roma Pryma Bohachevsky. Since 2004, Iskra has been under the artistic direction of Andrij Cybyk and has continued to grow and thrive, with more than 120 students ages 4-22. The program performs dance from Ukraine’s diverse regions, always with careful attention to ethnographic details in costumes and choreography. Ikra’s performing ensemble is regularly featured at Ukrainian festivals in the tri-state area. CHERES: Andriy Milavsky (director, woodwinds), Ihor Shablovsky (violin), Victor Cebotar (accordion), Igor Iachimciuc (tsymbaly/hammered dulcimer), Branislav Brinarsky (bass). ISKRA: Andrij Cybyk (director); Dancers: Petro Chudolij, Nicholas Hlushko, Markian Kuziw, Paul Senic, Alexander Syzonenko, Alexandra Butman, Anita Chomenko, Natalka Dobrowolski, Taissa Hamulak, Bohdana Komichak, Ania Kosachevich, Olga Kushnir, Alya Kuzyszyn, Katya Syzonenko, Julia Vozniuk

Merita Halili was born in Albania’s capital city, Tiranë. Merita grew up singing the lyric songs of her native region of Central Albania. Her nationwide debut came in 1983 at the age of 17, when she sang at the National Folk Festival in the town of Gjirokastër. Soon afterwards she performed on Albanian radio and television and as a soloist with the State Ensemble for Folk Songs and Dances, subsequently becoming one of the most popular singers in the country. The repertoire for which Merita is best known is that of Central Albania (Shqipëria e Mesme), particularly the towns of Tiranë, Elbasan, Kavajë, and Durrës.

Raif Hyseni, Merita Halili’s husband and principal accompanist, hails from Mitrovicë in the Republic of Kosova, which has a large Albanian majority. Raif was a well-known radio and television performer in Prishtinë, Kosova’s capital of Kosova, where he was a member of the group “Besnikët.” Through his recordings and media appearances, Raif has become known as a major innovator on the accordion, for which he has composed dozens of instrumental melodies. Merita and Raif immigrated to the US in 1995, but travel back to Albania frequently for performances on TV and in festivals. Merita Halili, (vocals), Raif Hyseni (orchestra leader, accordion & vocals), Mal Stein (drums), Mirgjen Davora (bass & vocals), Adrijan Arslan (clarinet & saxophone), Jesse Kotansky (violin). Dance Leaders: Steve and Susan Kotansky.

Nariman Asanov is a violinist and the leader of the NY Crimean Tatar Ensemble. He was born in Almalik, Uzbekistan in 1973, the child of community activists who survived the Soviet’s mass deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia in 1944. Growing up in a large community-in-exile, he was inspired by a local village fiddler, as well as the late Enver Sherfedinov, a leading Crimean Rom violinist who frequently played on Uzbek television. In 1988, his family was able to return to Crimea, and he enrolled in the Tchaikovsky Music College in Simferopol, now the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in Ukraine. While there, Nariman became one of the first members of Ali Alimov’s Uchan-su Folk Ensemble, which takes its name from a famous waterfall near Yalta. Uchan-su toured the US in 1991 and in 1994, and at the end of the second visit Nariman decided to stay. He enrolled in the Music Conservatory at SUNY Purchase and graduated with a degree in violin performance. Leading a band composed of a number of émigré alumni of Uchan-su and the Efsane Ensemble (including Efsane’s former musical director, the superb trumpeter Rustem Faizov), Nariman performs frequently for events at the American Association of Crimean Turks in Brooklyn, as well as at weddings and other family celebrations in the community.

Dancing Crane

Dancing Crane Georgian Dance Theater is a collective of dancers, singers, and musicians committed to the study and authentic performance of folk dance and music traditions of Georgia. The group has been active since 1996 under the direction of Victor Sirelson, formerly of LA’s Aman Folk Ensemble. Dancing Crane presents a unique mix of local talent and master performers from Georgia. Among the ensemble members are some of Georgia’s top performers, including choreographer Vladimer “Dato” Goderidze. Goderidze has worked and performed with Georgia’s leading ensembles for many years, including Tbilisi’s Metekhi Ensemble. Victor Sirelson (producer), Vladimer Goderidze (choreographer), Dancers: Luka Begiashvili; Irakli Jalagonia; Elguja Jamdeliani; Manuchar Khubulava; Mishiko Kobakidze; Tamaz Margishvili; Malkhaz Shubitidize; Gocha Sikharulidze; Ilia Svianaidze; Irakli Tsaava; Simon Tsertsvadze; Temuri Tsikhiseli; Giorgi Vezdeni; Mikheil Vasadze; Vika Bushrikidze; Teona Gocholeishvili; Ketevan Eriashvili; Anna Sichnaya; Tamar Tsivilashvili; Irina Khutsurauli. Musicians: Nodar Obolashvili (doli/ drum), Irakli Jalagonia (garmoni/accordion).

Dmitri (Zisl) Slepovitch is an internationally renowned multiinstrumentalist (clarinetist, saxophonist, flautist, pianist, keyboardist, singer), composer, arranger, translator, and music and Yiddish educator. Slepovitch is the founder and leader of the Litvakus klezmer band, Assistant Music Director / Music Director in many productions by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, including the Drama Desk Award nominated operetta The Golden Bride (2015/16). Zisl Slepovitch has served as a Yiddish language and culture instructor at The New School, educator and artist in residence at BIMA at Brandeis University, guest artist at University of Michigan, Indiana University, and Amherst College and Vassar College, a teaching fellow and performing artist at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (New York City), Vienna Klezmer Workshop (Vienna), The Moscow Sefer Center, and Eshkolot Project (both in Moscow). Some of Slepovitch’s theater, film, and TV contributions include consulting and acting in Defiance (Paramount), Eternal Echoes (Sony Classical), Rejoice with Itzhak Perlman and Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot (PBS),  original scores for the documentary Funeral Season, children’s musical The King of Chelm. Slepovitch brought over from his home country Belarus a rich ethnographic collection of Belarusian Jewish music folklore collected together with Dr. Nina Stepanskaya. The collection was used in Slepovitch’s his multimedia concert program Traveling the Yiddishland. Some of Yiddish poetry by Zisl Slepovitch has been set to music and published in Israel, Russia, and the US. Over the years, Jewish music and Yiddish culture have remained the core elements of his creative inspirations.

Petra Gelbart

Petra Gelbart is a Romani educator, scholar, and musician. She was first introduced to Romani music and language by her family while growing up in Czechoslovakia. She earned her Ph.D. in musicology/ethnomusicology at Harvard University and went on to co-found the Initiative for Romani Music at New York University. Her research interests include interethnic communication, the psychology of music, the Holocaust, and institutional ethnography. At the university level, she has taught the theory, practice, and cultural context of Romani music as well as other subjects. Dr Gelbart is also a board-certified music therapist specialized in rehabilitative and developmental therapy. In addition to practicing in New York City, she works with Czech foster and adoptive families raising Romani children. A specialist in Czech and Russian Romani music, she founded and leads the ensemble Via Roman.

Ensemble Shashmaqam: The vibrantly colorful Ensemble Shashmaqam was the first and one of the most prominent performing groups to emerge among the New York Bukharan Jewish immigrant community. The end of the USSR also spurred a great deal of migration among the majority Uzbek and Tajik Muslim populations, and in New York, Central Asian Jews and Muslims once again live as neighbors. The musicians of Ensemble Shashmaqam are joined by Muslim immigrant musicians, demonstrating music’s continued importance as a space for communication and exchange among Central Asian Jews and Muslims. Together with its Muslim guest artists, Ensemble Shashmaqam presents a panorama of the classical and folk music and dance traditions of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The ensemble takes its name from the classical music system of Central Asia, which literally translates to “six maqams (or modes).” The ensemble features Shumiel Kuinov (doire/percussion), Rustam Sammarqandi (vocals), David Davidov (tar/lute) and dancer Firuza Yagudaeva, as well as other leading figures in the New York Central Asian musical community.

Michael Yuri (Yuri Yunakov): Developed in the 1970s, Bulgarian wedding music is described by the University of Oregon’s Carol Silverman as emphasizing “virtuosic technique, improvisation, fast speeds, daring key changes, and eclectic musical sources such as jazz, rock, Turkish, and Indian musics, as well as Balkan village folk music.” A pioneer of this music, Yuri Yunakov is the leading Bulgarian Roma musician in the United States and largely responsible for creating the saxophone’s role in this style. During communism, wedding music became an anti-government countercultural phenomenon that united Roma and Bulgarians.  With this new contemporary fusion, Yunakov has raised the profile of Balkan music in the United States, playing for both Romani and non-Romani audiences alike. Of Turkish Romani ancestry, Yunakov was born in 1958 in Haskovo, a city in the Thracian region of southeastern Bulgaria. His great-grandfather, grandfather, and three uncles were all violinists and his father was a popular clarinet player. At a young age, Yunakov learned the kaval (a shepherd’s flute) followed by the davul (a traditional two-headed drum) which he used to accompany his father and older brothers at local weddings. In his teens, Yunakov also accompanied his father on the clarinet while training as a boxer. Following a time in the army in the mid-1970s, Yunakov returned to music and began playing the saxophone. In 1983, Ivan Milev discovered Yunakov and, after months of training, he began to play with Milev’s group Mladost in 1984. He came to the notice of Ivo Papasov soon afterwards, going on to play in Papasov’s band Trakija for nearly 10 years. Together with Trakija, Yunakov performed at hundreds of weddings in his native Bulgaria and toured extensively in Europe and North America. In 1989, Papasov’s band performed for the first time in the United States, including a performance on David Sanborn’s nationally broadcast TV program, Night Music. After consistent persecution by the Bulgarian socialist government for performing Romani music, Yunakov emigrated to the United States in 1994 and formed his own band, the Yunakov Ensemble. The band has toured extensively throughout the United States and abroad but continues to play at weddings and family gatherings in New York’s tri-state Bulgarian, Turkish, Romani, and Macedonian communities. The Yunakov Ensemble has made four recordings for Traditional Crossroads: New Colors in Bulgarian Wedding Music, BaladaRoma Variations, and Together Again.  The Yunakov Ensemble has toured extensively, including performing at UCLA’s Royce Hall, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and New York’s Symphony Space, as well as playing in Germany, Poland, Denmark, and Italy.


Buchanan, Donna. 2006. Performing Democracy: Bulgarian Music and Musicians in Transition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cooley, Timothy. 2005. Making Music in the Polish Tatras: Tourists, Ethnographers, and Mountain Musicians. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

Levin, Theodore. 1996. The Hundred Thousand Fools of God: Musical Travels in Central Asia (and Queens, New York). Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Loeffler, James. 2010. The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Silverman, Carol. 2012. Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Slobin, Mark, ed. 1996. Retuning Culture: Musical Changes in Central and Eastern Europe. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Wanner, Catherine. 1998. Burden of Dreams: History and Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine. University Park, PA: Penn State Press.

Zemtsovsky, I.I. and Kunanbaeva, A. 1997. “Communism and Folklore” In Folklore and Traditional Music in the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: An Assessment, edited by James Porter, 3-23; 42-44. Los Angeles: UCLA.

We are grateful for support of this project by the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the Atran Foundation. Map courtesy of Your Child Learns.