Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
VIA store 300x100
Join our Newsletter
Sponsored Content

TBT: Master of the pan flute provides soundtrack for evening of sacrifice

Eleven years ago, Zamfir played Vancouver and brought a mother and her sarcastic son closer together
Eleven years ago, city editor Michael Kissinger took his mother to see Zamfir, master of the pan flute, and lived to write about it.

Originally published Feb. 1, 2006

My birthday is coming up this month. But while such occasions are a good way to revamp your gaunch collection and mark the passage of time, they don't necessarily relate to your evolution as a person. To gauge how much someone has matured, look at how much they've willingly sacrificed. When I was 23, I decided to never eat at a Fogg n' Suds or order chicken fingers and fries ever again. Last year, I danced unironically with my mom at a family function to Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell," despite uncomfortable lyrics like "In the midnight hour, she cried more, more, more." This past weekend, however, I crossed without a doubt the biggest threshold in my ongoing steps toward maturity — I took my mother to see Zamfir.

Zamfir is known the world over as "the master of the pan flute." He sold millions of easy-listening albums of Romanian folk tunes and classical compositions over his career, which peaked in the 1980s, and it was during this time that the New Age-y Romanian blew his way into in my mother's heart.

When she and my father split up in the early '80s, my mom hit the Zamfir pretty hard. Whereas my dad retreated to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours for comfort, later branching out into Toto's Toto IV, Bruce Hornsby and the Range, and — for reasons I'm still can't determine — Jan Hammer's "Theme from Miami Vice," my mother made the plaintive call of Zamfir's Lonely Shepherd the soundtrack for her new life. Eventually, she moved onto Windham Hill's seasonal samplers — the musical equivalent of sandalwood incense sticks — but Zamfir remained her go-to guy.

So when I learned the Z-man would be performing in Vancouver after years of silence, I decided it was time to make amends for all the times my siblings and I mocked my mother's musical leanings. I gave her two tickets for Christmas with the assurance I'd accompany her to the concert and not make fun of anything the entire time. My mom's immediate worry was what she should wear.

"I don't know, how about a shawl," I suggested, before realizing I had already broken my promise.

Time has not been kind to Gheorghe Zamfir. He's had record company problems; in the 1970s, political enemies of Romania reportedly sold his house when he was out of the country; and in 1982, he was banished from his homeland for eight years after violating communist doctrine by dedicating a Bucharest concert to God. In a recent interview with Canadian Press, Zamfir claimed that despite millions of records sold, "crooks, sharks and criminals" have taken most of his money, and that the thousands of pan flutists around the world (read: Granville Island) are an "army of garbage" who are out to destroy the divine and magical power of the pan flute.

As my shawl-less mother and I took to our seats at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Friday, I thought about Zamfir's depressing transformation from dashing, recently-separated-woman-wooing master of the pan flute to bitter, financially troubled, 64-year-old master of the pan flute.

The crowd was an eclectic mix of grey hairs, young couples and what my father would describe as "attractive broads." Not surprisingly, Zamfir and his accompanying string quintet were all business, dressed in black and burning their way through an hour of classical tunes with workman-like efficiency. At one point, after Zamfir switched to a larger pan flute, a woman behind me gasped, "Look at the size of that thing." During the intermission, I overheard the same woman tell her friend she had seen Zamfir perform with Nana Mouskouri years ago, and it was almost as good as seeing Yanni. I think she was wearing a shawl.

When the concert resumed, there was a marked difference in Zamfir's demeanor. Not only had he switched from a black to light-blue dress shirt, he looked younger and even seemed to be enjoying himself. Maybe this was because his second set consisted of crowd favourites like "Danny Boy," the Beatles' "Yesterday" and, gulp, "The Lonely Shepherd," which was far more kickin' than I remembered. His version of "The Lark," where he imitates the sounds of bird, received a standing ovation.

At one point, Zamfir's band left the stage so he could perform a 10-minute solo — kind of like when Eddie Van Halen would play "Eruption," except I doubt the master of the pan flute ended his evening snorting cocaine from a porn star's heaving bosom.

Though I didn't rush out and buy any Zamfir albums after the concert — not that he'd see any of the money anyway — I did gain a newfound respect for the man and his ability to soothe listeners with his innocuous stylings. More importantly, I gained a better understanding of my mother and grew as a person because of it. In short, I felt older. Two-and-a-half hours of pan flute, no matter how magical, will do that to you.