'It's like breathing'

The most famous pan flutist in the world, Gheorghe Zamfir, thinks his success is natural, considering the work he's put in and the talent he possesses.

Gheorghe Zamfir 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gheorghe Zamfir 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
He's the Jimi Hendrix of the pan flute, and the answer to an esoteric 1980s trivia question. This paradox has plagued Gheorghe Zamfir throughout his 50-year career. But at age 67, the Romanian virtuoso who you've definitely heard before - whether through his easy-listening versions of hits by Billy Joel, his movie scores for The Karate Kid, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Once Upon a Time in America, or through his often-parodied 1980s late-night, mail-order TV commericals - is content with his place in the music world. Indeed, the Magic of Zamfir, as the title of his hugely successful 20-year-old TV album suggests, is that he's managed to sell millions of records around the world by playing virtually any style of music that comes to him - from classical to baroque to traditional European folk music to new-age soothing salves. And it's all because of his instrument. The pan flute is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world, with evidence of it having been in existence for more than 6,000 years. Consisting of 10 or more pipes placed in a row, arranged from the longest tube to the shortest, the instrument produces a different note for each tube. Believed to be the inspiration for the pipe organ, original pan flutes were generally made from reed or bamboo, but today, most pan flutes are made out of metal, plastic and wood. Zamfir is known for playing an expanded version of the traditional Romanian-style pan flute of 20 pipes to 22, 25, 28 and 30 pipes to increase its range, and obtaining as many as nine tones from each pipe. And its sound is mesmerizing. "My first instrument was the accordion, which I really liked. But from the first time I took the pan flute in my hands, it spoke to me," said Zamfir through a translator from his home in Bucharest. "It was the most emotional-sounding instrument I ever heard. Nothing else possesses the range of sounds and the possibilities of affecting your feelings like the pan flute does. It's a cosmic instrument." A GIFTED musician as a child, Zamfir attended the Bucharest High School of Music, and four years later won Romania's top prize for pan flute. He released his first European album in 1968, and by 1973 was playing Carnegie Hall. "From the moment I arrived, I took them by surprise. It was a type of music not known to them and it struck a chord. They surrendered to me and gave up to my style and power," he said, without a hint of immodesty. A 1977 recording of James Last's "The Lonely Shepherd" further raised his profile (and in 2003 returned to prominence when Quentin Tarantino used the song in Kill Bill Vol. 1). Zamfir was adamant about sticking to "serious" music, be it Romanian folk songs or Baroque. But by the late 1970s, he succumbed to record-company pressure and agreed to record pop albums - easy listening cover versions of the hits of the day like Joel's "Just The Way Your Are" and Abba's "Knowing Me Knowing You." Until you've heard them on the pan flute, you just haven't heard them properly. While he resisted the trend toward pop as being an artistic compromise for commercial considerations, he now looks back on those records with a sense of pride. "I think that one of my biggest accomplishments is that my versions of popular songs have gone on to be more successful than the originals," he said. That was, no doubt, thanks in part to the relentless advertising campaign selling The Magic of Zamfir that late night American TV viewers were subject to. It helped make the musician a single-name celebrity in the era of Sting and Madonna, as well as the butt of late-night talk show monologues. Zamfir, however, takes it all in stride and points to his gold records and international concert tours as vindication. "I'm not surprised at the interest in my music. It didn't happen overnight, it took 40 years. If it had happened overnight, then I would have been surprised. Only in recent years have I begun to feel accepted as a serious musician that can play all types of music. While most musicians stay in their genre, I've tried it all - classical, jazz, pop. The critics always say how surprising it is that so many different styles of music can be played with the pan flute," he said. That's why filmmakers like Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone approached Zamfir to compose the scores for their movies. He said he didn't treat his soundtrack work any differently than his other projects. "Music for movies is a regular thing for me. A melodist is always creating according to a muse and a picture in their heads. If I wanted, I could become the biggest movie soundtrack composer. Pan flute music is so sentimental, it has that emotional depth perfect for movies," he said. DESPITE HIS international success, Zamfir's career was fraught with controversy, including a paternity suit from a 16-year-old girl accusing him of fathering her child, disputes and law suits with record companies over royalties, and in the early 1980s, being exiled from Romania by the Communist government for regularly dedicating his concerts to God. More recently, in 2002, Zamfir was denied entry to Israel for a concert tour due to improper work visas. However, the entry denial came against a backdrop of claims that Zamfir had written articles for a right-wing journal in Romania that were anti-Semitic and questioned the authenticity of the Holocaust, allegations that Zamfir emphatically denied. The following year, the musician was allowed to enter the country, where he visited Yad Vashem and planted a tree in memory of Holocaust victims in order to clear his name. "The whole [2002] incident had nothing to do with the Holocaust, it was due to visa problems," said Nancy Brandes, a veteran Romanian-born Israeli musician who organized Zamfir's visit to Israel, and who is also bringing the musician here this month for six shows. "There were all kinds of made-up rumors about him. He's never been a Holocaust denier. I've talked to him about this," he said. With Helicon Records recently releasing a CD in honor of Israel's 60th birthday of Zamfir performing Israeli standards like "Lu Yihi," as well as collaborations with Uzi Hitman just before he died, Zamfir is hoping to show skeptical fans that he is indeed a lover of Zion. He'll be performing some of those songs, as well as selections from his huge catalogue of work, when he appears beginning June 12 in Beersheba at the Omer Amphitheater, the next night in Binyamina at the Shoni Amphitheater, June 17 in Tel Aviv at Hechal Hatarbut, the 18th in Ashkelon at Hechal Hatarbut, the 19th in Herzliya at Habima and the 21st in Rishon Lezion at Hechal Hatarbut. It's quite a taxing schedule for a man who could be collecting social security checks. But Zamfir doesn't get fatigued by playing the physically demanding pan flute. "Just yesterday, I practiced for five-and-a-half hours. To me, it's like breathing."