Most North American music lovers were introduced to pan flute artist Gheorghe Zamfir in the mid-1980s, when he appeared in numerous late-night cable television advertisements for his albums on the Heartland record label. The ads made some improbable statements about Zamfir's worldwide record sales and the easy-listening, instrumental arrangements of popular and classical songs struck some critics as cloying. Despite the criticism, the ads made Zamfir a household name and the flutist sold enough albums to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. Although he relished his success, the classically trained Zamfir was annoyed that it overshadowed his former reputation as the world's best pan flute player. "Up until then, I made only fabulous things," he told People in 1986 about his decision to record easy-listening standards for Heartland. "Then when I recorded something ordinary as a concession—poof!—people suddenly said that the work was wonderful."
Zamfir was born on April 6, 1941, in the small, industrial city of Gaesti, about 40 miles northwest of Bucharest, the capital of Romania. Although his father had once owned a vineyard, his parents managed a small grocery store in the city while Zamfir was growing up, which gave the family considerable status in a country with a centrally planned economy that often produced shortages of consumer goods. First introduced to some of his country's folk songs by his mother, Zamfir studied the accordion during his childhood. His talent was obvious enough that he was offered a scholarship to study music at the Bucharest Academy of Music when he was 14 years old. There was one catch, however: Zamfir would have to give up the accordion and adopt a new instrument, the pan flute (or pan pipe, called nai in Romanian), if he wanted to enroll. It was a difficult decision for the teenager, but he agreed to the condition and became the pupil of flute master Fanica Luca.
Zamfir made rapid progress on the pan flute and within four years was already considered a top musician on the instrument within Romania. Although the pan flute was considered somewhat obscure outside of the region, it was a central instrument in the nation's folk music tradition, particularly in Zamfir's home territory of Wallachia. Often associated with pastoral songs describing the life of a shepherd, the pan flute may have been played in the region as early as Roman times. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Wallachian trios comprised of lute, pan flute, and violin players were well known throughout the region, but the popularity of the genre declined in the twentieth century. Among the few musicians to keep the tradition of the pan flute alive was Fanica Luca, who passed his knowledge along to Zamfir.
Resurgence in Romanian Folk Music
Zamfir's study of the pan flute in the late 1950s and 1960s coincided with a growing recognition of Romanian folk life, including traditional forms of music. Far from being a grassroots revival, the interest was generated by the Romanian government, which had been taken over by the Communist Party in 1944. After dictator Nicolae Ceausecscu assumed power in 1965, the state instituted a program of co-opting Romania's folk life in order to proclaim a message of national glory and purity, as well as the greatness of the country's leadership. Elaborate festivals featuring folk dances and music were filmed and televised on the state-run networks every week; the lyrics of the songs were often changed, however, and in the place of any religious sentiments were new lyrics in homage to the Communist Party. It was during this era that Zamfir completed his musical training at the Bucharest Academy of Music, where he also studied the piano and took voice lessons. The young musician served as a guest conductor for several orchestras in Romania. In his spare time, Zamfir experimented with adding additional pipes to his flutes, which traditionally had just 20 tubes. By creating a 30-tube pan flute, he was able to broaden the instrument's register and also its repertoire.
Poor health, including stomach ulcers, forced Zamfir to give up the pan flute for four years in his twenties. He recovered sufficiently to return playing the instrument and record his first album in 1968, when he was 27. The experience left Zamfir disillusioned when the European record company that produced and distributed the album appeared to cheat him out of his earnings; although he filed a number of lawsuits, he could not recover what he thought he was owed. Zamfir also traveled abroad to perform in 1969, beginning with a church concert in Switzerland with musicologist Marcel Cellier, who accompanied him on the organ. The "pan flute and organ" concerts that Zamfir and Cellier put on were the start of a rich collaboration between the two men and spread Zamfir's fame throughout western Europe in the 1970s.
International Success in 1970s
Under the watchful eye of the Romanian government, Zamfir was one of the few prominent Romanians allowed to travel to the West during this period. He was also allowed to record for western record companies, beginning with The Fantastic Gheorghe Zamfir on CBS in 1971. His biggest success during the decade was the unexpected popularity of the single release of "Doina de Jale," a traditional Romanian funeral lament, which was used as the theme music for the British television series "The Light of Experience." The song hit the top five on the pop charts in England in September of 1976. His haunting performance on the soundtrack of the Australian movie Picnic at Hanging Rock in 1977 was also well received. The releases helped Zamfir to become a popular concert performer in Europe, where he earned up to $10,000 per concert by the early 1980s. He also journeyed to North America to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1981.
Despite these triumphs, Zamfir increasingly fell afoul of the authorities in Romania. In 1981 he faced a paternity suit by a teenage girl who claimed she had given birth to Zamfir's child. Zamfir emphatically denied the charge, but a Romanian court ruled against him and his house was sold to settle the case. The musician was also condemned by the government after he dedicated one concert to God; even after he was pressured not to make such a statement again, he refused to comply. In 1982, while he was performing a concert date in Paris, he heard that the Romanian government had denied him permission to return to the country. "I cried for three or four hours every day," Zamfir told People magazine in a 1986 profile; the incident led to another physical collapse due to the emotional stress of the banishment.
Became Late-Night Cable Television Fixture
Now in exile, Zamfir split his time between Paris and Montreal, where he lived with Susan Nichols; the couple had a son around 1986. Zamfir was disappointed in a 1985 concert tour of the United States, which he later claimed lost him more than a half-million dollars. Despite that setback, Zamfir commanded up to $30,000 per concert appearance after leaving Romania. Zamfir also encountered his greatest commercial success during the mid-1980s. Entering into a contract with Heartland Records, he agreed to record some popular and traditional standards for release by the label, which was owned by Lawrence Welk, Jr., son of the famous bandleader. The connection to the easylistening Welks did not do much for Zamfir's musical credibility; nor did the manner in which the records were marketed. On commercials that typically aired in late-night slots on cable television, the ads showed Zamfir playing his pan pipes while an announcer intoned, "Relax, as Zamfir sweeps you away to a world of haunting, tranquil beauty." The ads also claimed that Zamfir had sold tens of millions of records around the world, a statement that the record company was unable to substantiate. Estimates of the number of records that Zamfir sold in the American market ranged from 750,000 to one million albums in the 1980s.
As an artist who had made his name by reviving traditional eastern European music and adapting it into modern forms, Zamfir resented the criticism of his output as "a crass grab for sales … all framed in lush, Muzak-like arrangements," as Mike Ross of the Jam! Showbiz website wrote in 2000. Most of Zamfir's releases in the 1990s and beyond have been compilations of his past works, although he has continued to release albums of both traditional and popular music.
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