Fans who hear it on their record players claim it soothes the soul like a sweet birdcall. Critics, who often hear it in elevators or the dentist’s office, say it sounds like somebody blowing into a Coke bottle. Either way, the man who creates the odd musical noises in question has become a most unlikely celebrity to millions of Americans who have been subjected to a three-year barrage of TV ads for his album, The Magic of Zamfir. He is the undisputed king of the pan flute, Gheorghe Zamfir, a Rumanian exile with a talent for creating easy-listening hits on an archaic folk instrument. For the past decade Zamfir has been one of the most popular musicians outside the U.S., with 60 gold and platinum albums. Now, with his face on TV and sales of his 11 U.S. discs reaching millions, he has conquered America too. “The pan flute sounds like an echo of the heart and mind,” says Zamfir, 45. “You can laugh or cry with it.”
Even if most people know him mainly for his dreamy rendition of Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are or his movie scores for The Karate Kid and Picnic at Hanging Rock, Zamfir, who goes by his last name, is musically far more complex. When European audiences first encountered him in the ’70s, he was hailed as a flawless interpreter of Baroque music and Rumanian folk songs. Even today, most of his albums are devoted to rhapsodies, concertos and sonatas of his own composition or works by Bach and Mozart. “I wanted to stay pure,” says Zamfir, who resisted for three years when Philips Records asked him to make a pop album in the late ’70s. “But I also wanted to show that the pan flute can adapt to all styles.” He still has mixed feelings about his decision to record pop. “Up until then,” he says, “I made only fabulous things. Then when I recorded something ordinary as a concession—poof!—people suddenly said that the work was wonderful.” Not everybody said that—the Portland Oregonian called his music “treacly pop pabulum”—but Zamfir generally does please music experts. The San Francisco Chronicle called him “the Heifetz of the pan flute.”
Part of the appeal comes from Zamfir’s unrivaled skills. He can change moods and octaves merely by altering the angle of his lips. Six bamboo pan flutes he painstakingly built himself expand his repertoire: With seven to 30 tubes apiece, they allow more versatility than simpler models played by other folk musicians.
Growing up in Gaiesti, a small industrial town near Bucharest, Zamfir first set his heart on becoming a master of the accordion. He learned folk songs from his mother, who helped his father run a grocery store. When he was accepted at the Bucharest High School of Music at 14, however, it was with the stipulation that he study the pan flute with virtuoso Fanica Luca. “I cried because I wanted to play accordion,” Zamfir recalls. Nonetheless he switched allegiance and in four years won Rumania’s top prize for pan flute.
Graduating at 20, Zamfir added to his musical range by studying piano, voice and conducting for seven years. So promising were his talents that he began leading several Bucharest orchestras while still a student. He released his first European album in 1968, shortly before his Western concert debut in Switzerland. With his own taraf, a small folk ensemble, he played Carnegie Hall in 1973. But his biggest success came in 1977 when he recorded James Last’s The Lonely Shepherd, which became an immediate hit and has sold millions of copies.
Successful as it was, Zamfir’s early career had low points, brought on both by his strong will and his physical frailty. When he was 20, stomach ulcers forced him to quit the pan flute for four years. He later filed and lost suits against European record companies that he claims cheated him out of huge amounts of money. Most difficult of all, life in Rumania grew more taxing as his reputation grew in the West. He says a 16-year-old girl in 1981 falsely accused him of fathering her child. Political enemies, he claims, decided the case against him while he was away, then sold his house for the settlement. In 1982, Zamfir announced to a sell-out crowd in Bucharest that his concert was dedicated to God. The Communist government warned him to knock off the religious message, but Zamfir defiantly repeated his dedication at later concerts. Visiting Paris soon after, he read in a newspaper that Rumania would not allow him to return home. “I cried for three or four hours every day,” he says, adding that banishment brought on shingles and a brief nervous breakdown.
Zamfir found solace during a visit to Canada, where he met American consulate staffer Susan Nichols, 27, who soon moved into a house he bought outside Montreal. There, Zamfir has developed a wide-eyed delight in his newfound Western wealth. “Very old, very expensive,” he says, glowing as he shows off the antique furnishings that took two and a half years to gather. His closet holds six fur coats and a white silk tuxedo. He takes his 1957 Rolls for a spin to show a visitor how easily it hits 85 mph and he lavishly serves a 1970 Chateau Margeaux with lunch.
Still, Zamfir remains a man of dramatic contradictions: He has taken up Eastern spiritualism with the same fervor he has for the good life, believes in reincarnation and practices hathayoga daily. “If he sees a fly, he’ll bring it outside without killing it,” says Susy. If he ever regains the $500,000 he says he lost on a poorly organized 1985 U.S. tour, Zamfir wants to build a pan flute cultural center, complete with theater, music school and meditation tower.
“My life has a single goal,” Zamfir maintains. “I’m absolutely sure that there is a pure vibration—like the wind—in my body. I must find it with my pan flute—and show it.” Whether such a sound will be achieved on Abba’s Knowing Me, Knowing You, or on Mozart’s Elvira Madigan theme, or one of the Rumanian folk tunes on Zamfir’s next planned release remains to be heard.