The History of the Pan Flute

By David Osborn

Introduction: Which Pan Flute Are We Talking About?
For reasons I will explain later on in this article, the Pan Flute has suffered from a terrible identity crisis in recent years. The term is applied so loosely that any kind of flute with multiple pipes and no finger holes, from anywhere on earth, has been called a “Pan Flute”. If we were to apply the same naming standards to string instruments, for example, a Mandolin could be called a “Guitar”. It’s time to set the record straight: The original and authentic Pan Flute is an indigenous folk instrument of Romania, in Eastern Europe, where it is known as “Nai” in Romanian. The Romanian Pan Flute is so-called because it is the modern, acoustically perfected, concert instrument version of the classical Greek Panpipes – that most ancient and mythical of wind instruments. What are the salient or distinguishing features of the authentic Romanian Pan Flute? They are as follows:

A single row or tier of pipes, in curved or arched format, to facilitate ergonomic speed, ease and efficiency of playing. The pipes are arranged sequentially from the lowest / longest pipe on one end, usually the player’s right side, to the shortest / highest pipe on the other end, usually the player’s left.
Pipes made either of high quality bamboo or lathed hardwood, with a wall thickness of at least 2 to 3 millimeters.
Pipes that are slatted or flattened on their lateral sides and glued together with furniture or woodworking glue, and precision fitted or joined together.
Pipes that are rounded or beveled at their top ends, to facilitate playing the sharps and flats, or accidental notes, via changes in the blowing angle and movements of the lips and jaws.

Pipes that are all closed or sealed and tuned at their bottom ends, and also fastened or held in a frame or boot at their bottom ends.
To straighten things out and clear up undue confusion in the naming and identity of the Pan Flute and its numerous musicological relatives or cousins, perhaps adopting a binomial system along the lines of botany or zoology might help. For example, all flutes or aerophones having multiple pipes and no finger holes would all fall into the genus Syrinx, designating various kinds of Panpipes. Then, the second or species name would specify exactly which member of this larger family we are talking about. The authentic Romanian Pan Flute would be designated Syrinx panflote, with the second or species name being derived from the German word for Pan Flute.

Doina and Hora, by Fanica Luca. Gheorghe Zamfir would play the initial Doina an octave lower, using a lower pitched Pan Flute.

An Ancient, Primal and Universal Flute Concept
The origins of the Pan Flute and its ancestor, the Panpipes, are lost in hoary antiquity. God Himself was undoubtedly the first Pan Flutist when He blew across the tops of open reeds by the banks of a lake. Primitive man, walking by those exposed reeds, heard them give off different musical notes or pitches when the wind blew across them, with the longer ones giving off lower notes, and the shorter ones higher notes. And probably the first creative impulse he had was to collect these different reeds and raft them together into a scale, from the highest and shortest at one end to the lowest and longest at the other, fixing them together with splints and twine. This was the creation of the first Panpipes. And because this was such a simple and primal musical idea or concept, it probably occurred to primitive men living in many different parts of the world independently of each other. This explains why there are flutes of the Panpipe genre, or genus, to be found in so many primitive or indigenous cultures around the world, from Greece to South America, from the Solomon Islands to ancient China and Japan. Even before primitive man figured out that he could obtain multiple notes from a single pipe or reed by drilling finger holes in it, he was able to simply raft pipes together into a scale.

Ancient Greece: Syrinx, or the Pipes of Pan
In the West, not just the Panpipes, but all other kinds of flutes as well, have long had an association with Nature and the pastoral life. Why is this so? The ancient Greeks credited the invention of the first Panpipes, or Syrinx, to the god Pan, the patron god of shepherds, and the god of Nature and fertility. Pan, the god of shepherds, was half goat and half man, being a goat from the waist down, with a tail and cloven hoofs, and a man from the waist up, except for the goat’s horns sprouting out from his head. The ancient Greek Panpipes had anywhere from seven to nine pipes, arranged together in a diatonic scale; they were rafted together with splints and twine. In all probability, the ancient Greek Panpipes were made from Italian Cane, or Arundinaria sativa, which grows wild in the shores and marshes of the Mediterranean basin. Italian Cane is still used to make clarinet and saxophone reeds. The creation myth for the first Syrinx, or Panpipes, is as follows:

One fine spring morning, Pan was roaming through the glen when he spotted the lovely young nymph Syrinx. He immediately fell in love with her, and started chasing her through the glen, loudly proclaiming his love. Pan finally cornered the frightened nymph Syrinx by the banks of a lake, where the reeds and rushes grow. And just as Pan was in the process of throwing his arms around her, Syrinx implored her friends, the water nymphs, to change her into a tuft of reeds – so Pan, to his dismay, found that all he held was a bunch of reeds. Sighing in disappointment, he noticed that his breath made beautiful musical sounds when he blew over them. From this, he got the idea to make the first Panpipes, which he called Syrinx, in honor of his lost love.

In Greek, the word Syrinx means a whistle; interestingly enough, Syrinx is also the anatomical term for the song producing organ of a bird, which must be like an open pipe that the singing bird blows over. The ancient Greeks differentiated between Syrinx monokalamos, or a whistle with only one reed – in other words, an end-blown shepherd’s pipe, of which many specimens are still played in Greece and the Balkans, and Syrinx polykalamos, or a whistle with many reeds – in other words, the Panpipes. Plato, in his description of the ideal government and society in his dialogue The Republic, sees the Syrinx or Panpipes as merely a rustic and primitive shepherd’s instrument, and not worthy of serious music. These disparaging remarks of Plato about the Panpipes would seriously hamper the instrument’s acceptance in classical music, as we shall see. Ovid, when he ended his life in exile near Tomis, which is the modern Romanian port city of Constanta, saw that the locals made a kind of Panpipes, fastening the pipes together with what seemed to be pine pitch.

The opening theme from George Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody, played as a duet by Fanica and Damian Luca.  This video has many historical photos; in one of them, a young Zamfir sits in the background, playing the accordion.  

From Greece to Romania: The Thracian Connection
The Danube river valley, or that part of the Balkans that is known as Thrace, was a part of the greater Greek world in ancient times. In fact, it was even said that Orpheus, the Greek god of music, was a Thracian. Yet, according to Greek mythology, Pan’s main homeland and stomping grounds was a region called Arkadia, which is that wild, untamed heartland of the Peloponnese peninsula, not far from Sparta – and that’s quite a ways from Thrace. Myths are one thing, but what actually happened in ancient times may be quite different. In his Pan Flute method, Gheorghe Zamfir, the King of the Pan Flute, proposes two main ways in which the Pan Flute may have gotten to Romania: First, it was brought by Greek merchants and seafarers to the port city of Tomis, or Constanta. The second theory he proposes is that the Pan Flute, or the Panpipes before their modern form, were actually native or indigenous to Thrace, or the Danube river valley region of southern Romania, and penetrated southward into Greece in ancient times. In more recent years, southern or peninsular Greece has been subject to many ethnic wars and invasions, but in the Thracian backwater region, where an intense pastoral life was maintained, the Panpipes survived until modern times. Zamfir prefers the second theory.

One thing that favors the whole idea of Thrace, or the Danube river valley, being the original homeland of the Panpipes, and later the Pan Flute, or Nai, is that the Pan Flute is most common or prominent in the traditional folk music of Wallachia and Oltenia, which are on the southern Danubian plain; it is much less common in Moldova, or northeastern Romania; and it is least common in Transylvania, which is north of the Carpathian mountains, and furthest removed from the Danubian plain. Gheorghe Zamfir himself was born in Gaesti, which is west – northwest of Bucharest, on the southern Danubian plain, in between Wallachia and Oltenia. The traditional Romanian name for the Pan Flute, Nai, derives from the Middle Eastern flute, the Ney, which is a single piped end blown flute that is quite different from the Pan Flute. Although the Pan Flute is native or indigenous to the southern Danubian plain, it is now played in folk music ensembles throughout Romania.

Romania is an ethnic melting pot, and its traditional folk music is some of the most rich and varied in the world. Romanian folk music is traditionally played by a small instrumental band or ensemble called a Taraf, in which the backbone of the rhythm section is a giant hammered dulcimer called a Cymbalom. Other instruments flesh out the ensemble, with the main melody or solo instruments being either the violin or various flutes, of which the vertical shepherd’s flute, the Fluier, or the Nai – the Pan Flute were the chief ones. Although the violin started out being the main melody instrument, towards the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Nai or Pan Flute stepped in to fill that role – or shared it with the violin, and perhaps also the Fluier. Often, vocalists would be backed up by a Taraf.

Fanica Luca Saves the Pan Flute from Extinction
The years between the two world wars was a prosperous and fortunate time for Romania, and Bucharest, its capital city, was known as the little Paris of the Balkans. Consequently, many people immigrated to Romania from all over the world. Within this charming and celebratory atmosphere, musical entertainment flourished, and one of the most illustrious of these musical entertainers was Fanica Luca (1894 – 1968), a talented singer and multi-instrumentalist from a large family of gypsy musicians. Besides singing in a beautiful counter-tenor voice in the popular gypsy tradition, Fanica also played many other instruments; however, he was best known for his playing of the Nai, or Romanian Pan Flute. Besides performing at restaurants around Bucharest, Fanica Luca also played at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and also gave concerts in Poland, the People’s Republic of China, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the United States. He also received many awards, including the Ordre des Palmes Academiques from the French Ministry of National Education and the distinction of Eminent Artist, which was the highest honor that the Romanian government could bestow. Through Fanica Luca’s concert tours, the fame of the Nai, the Romanian Pan Flute, spread throughout the whole world. – 1.

There is yet another distinction that Fanica Luca holds in the history of the Pan Flute, which far exceeds any award that was officially bestowed upon him: He saved the Pan Flute from musical extinction. Looking around and seeing that, besides himself, only a handful of feeble old men still played the Pan Flute, Fanica Luca realized that the art of the Pan Flute would die with him if he didn’t teach it to a new generation of players. And so, he put his extraordinary pedagogical talents to work by teaching at the music conservatory in Bucharest. My own primary Pan Flute teacher, Damian Luca, was the great nephew of Fanica Luca; although his birth name was Gheorghe Draghici, he took the stage name of Damian Luca and started accompanying his uncle on concert tours from the age of 13. And so, the young Damian Luca served as a kind of “poster child” for the pedagogical talents of his great uncle, and inspired other parents to send their sons in for training on the Pan Flute. – 1.  

And so, Fanica Luca became the beloved “Grandfather of the Pan Flute” and taught everyone, who taught everyone, who now plays. Although Damian Luca was Fanica Luca’s first pupil and recruiting tool, many other pupils followed, of which the most famous was Gheorghe Zamfir (born 1941 in Gaesti, Romania), who is popularly known as the King of the Pan Flute. Some of Fanica Luca’s other pupils included Damian Carlanaru, Constantin Dobre, Radu Constantin, Radu Simion, Fanica Luca’s son in law, and Nicolae Pirvu – 1. Seeking greater artistic liberty and opportunities abroad, most of Fanica Luca’s pupils fled the oppressive dictatorial regime of Nicolae Ceausescu and emigrated to the West. I myself, as a student of Damian Luca, am also part of Fanica Luca’s extended musical family tree. Fanica Luca’s pupils, eager to make a name for themselves, have claimed that they initiated certain innovations in Pan Flute playing technique; for example, Damian Luca, my own teacher, claims that he initiated the technique of double and triple tonguing on the Pan Flute. But this is easily disproven when one listens to old recordings of Fanica Luca.

Roar Engelberg at the Mamaia Festival. Roar opens with the romantic ballad De Cand Ne-a Aflat Multimea (When the World Found Out About Us) and ends the medley with Grigoras Dinicu's Hora Staccato.  

Gheorghe Zamfir, Master Interpreter and Innovator on the Pan Flute
After Fanica Luca, Pan Flutists of today owe the greatest artistic debt to Gheorghe Zamfir, who is popularly known as the King of the Pan Flute. As famous and illustrious as he has become, he didn’t choose the Pan Flute; through a strange and ironic course of events, the Pan Flute chose him. You see, the young Gheorghe Zamfir went to the music conservatory in Bucharest hell bent on learning and mastering the accordion, but sadly – or actually, luckily for Pan Flute lovers around the world – the accordion class was closed due to a lack of interest and enrollment, and he was shoved, kicking and screaming, into the Pan Flute class of Fanica Luca. Nevertheless, the young Zamfir quickly distinguished himself as a performer and musician. How he gained access to phenomenal fame and fortune was also a weird twist of fate as well. My teacher Damian Luca says that he was out on a concert tour when the Swiss impresario, ethnomusicologist and organist Marcel Cellier came to the conservatory in Bucharest looking for a promising young Pan Flutist; and guess who was there as Johnny on the spot? Gheorghe Zamfir! The big hit that really made Zamfir a household name that was virtually synonymous with the Pan Flute was The Lonely Shepherd, which Zamfir recorded with the orchestra of James Last.

With the Pan Flute, as with any other musical instrument, you basically have two kinds of masters or virtuosos: the technical virtuoso and the artistic master interpreter virtuoso. Perhaps the best example of the technical Pan Flute virtuoso was Simion Stanciu, the Paganini of the Pan Flute, who also went by the name of Syrinx; perhaps the greatest song stylist and artistic interpreter on the Pan Flute has been Gheorghe Zamfir. Not only is Zamfir’s musical interpretation on the Pan Flute peerless and unsurpassed; he has also distinguished himself as a master innovator, blazing new paths and possibilities of musical expression for the Pan Flute. One of the ways Zamfir did this was to expand and lower the Pan Flute’s musical range. The instrument that Zamfir inherited from Fanica Luca was only 20 pipes in its span, from the “B” above middle “C” to the high “g” two and a half octaves above that. To this treble instrument, which has now grown by two pipes to a full three octaves, Zamfir introduced the 25 pipe tenor Pan Flute, extending the Pan Flute’s range down to the “D” above middle “C”. He subsequently introduced the 22 pipe bass Pan Flute, with a full three octaves, starting from the “G” below middle “C”.

These lower pitched Pan Flutes truly opened up new worlds of musical expression for the Pan Flute. Originally, the Pan Flute, as a solo instrument in the Romanian folklore orchestra, would soar high above the accompaniment, whistling and tweeting out coloratura passages, or pieces in which the Pan Flute imitated bird calls, as in the famous Ciocarlia (The Sky Lark), which was one of Zamfir’s early signature pieces that he performed with his folklore orchestra of the same name. Now, with his lower Pan Flutes, Zamfir could play a wide variety of pieces from many genres – pop, jazz, easy listening as well as classical pieces of a more romantic or lyrical nature. The musical possibilities for Pan Flutists who play these lower pitched flutes are now virtually endless. But still, there have been some Pan Flutists of the old school who have limited themselves to the basic treble instrument, which includes my teacher, Damian Luca, as well as his late friend Simion Stanciu, the Paganini of the Pan Flute. To each his own.  Another way in which Zamfir adapted the Pan Flute to his own unique and distinctive style of interpretation was via his own highly inclined style of pipe beveling (See the article on Pipe Beveling Styles, also in the Pan Flute section of this website.)

Raluca Patuleanu, also known as Roma Luca, plays the hauntingly beautiful Hora Lautareasca (Hora in the Gypsy Style). 

The Pan Flute’s Persistent Identity Problem
In recent years, the Pan Flute has suffered from a persistent identity problem. A major source or origin for this problem seems to lie in the very primal simplicity and universality of the whole Panpipe flute concept; multiple regions of the world boast flutes of this genre, which have no real causal or historical connection with each other, as they arose independently, due to the sheer simplicity of the Panpipe concept. As I said before, to catalog flutes of this genre, the Panpipes, under the genus name Syrinx seems to be a very good idea, with the authentic Pan Flute being Syrinx panflote. A common mistake made by musicologists and music historians is to call the Nai, or the Romanian Pan Flute, Panpipes; this fails to acknowledge that the Romanian Nai is a modern, acoustically perfected concert instrument that is evolutionarily way more sophisticated and refined than the primitive pipes attributed to the Greek god Pan.

Another dimension of this modern identity crisis is the term “Pan Flute” being used to refer to the various Panpipe-like flutes of the Andes of South America – of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. You see, at about the time that Zamfir was achieving phenomenal, worldwide popularity as the King of the Pan Flute, which was happening in a big way in the 1980s, flutists and string players from these Andean countries of South America were leaving their homeland in droves and taking to the streets in major cities around the world, popularizing their music via the direct marketing of their tapes and CDs to their audiences. With Zamfir and his Romanian Pan Flute being so popular at the time, it was only natural that these Andean musicians refer to their own Panpipe-like flutes as “Pan Flutes”, because this was something their audiences could readily understand and relate to. Actually, there are several different varieties of flutes in the Panpipe genre that are indigenous to the Andes – Zamponas, Sicus, Antara, Rondador, etc…, all with their own traditions and their own music behind them.

Perhaps the most sad and regrettable dimension of this whole identity problem has been the lamentable fact that the Romanian government itself was totally in denial and so reluctant to take credit for what has undoubtedly been their most widely beloved cultural export to date – the Nai, the Romanian Pan Flute. You see, in the early years after the fall of communism, Romania was struggling hard to catch up with the advanced nations of the occident – of Western Europe, and, taking after the attitude of Plato, who denigrated the Panpipes to second class status as being nothing more than a primitive shepherd’s instrument, didn’t want to be associated with an instrument that they saw as being so rustic and backward. As proof of this fact, journalist Morley Safer from CBS’ 60 Minutes did a segment in which he interviewed Romania’s foreign minister, asking her what the new symbol of Romania should be. The answers she gave were really lame: “Beautiful women”, she blurted out, followed by “Competent people” – yeah, like other countries didn’t also have plenty of those. I was totally flabbergasted that the Pan Flute, Romania’s most universally beloved cultural export, totally escaped her notice or consideration.

And so, the simple question, “What country is the Pan Flute from?” has now been relegated to total obscurity as a trivia question that is likely to stump at least 95 percent of all who are asked that question. Most people will probably guess Peru or some other country in South America – this is only a testament to the sheer persistence and pervasiveness of the Andeans and their musical street marketing campaigns. Among those who know better, attitudes towards this thorny identity problem range from downright indignation at the Andeans for stealing their cultural heritage by Romanian Pan Flutists of the old school to an eclectic condemnation of what those who endeavor to be politically correct and open minded see as excessive “Eurocentrism” by those who insist on asserting the Pan Flute’s Romanian identity. Maestro Zamfir has told me himself, after I told him that I had played in an Andean band, that he truly admired the music and flutes of the Andes. In return, the Andeans have been very appreciative of Zamfir as well, since he has made many concert tours to Peru and elsewhere in South America.

A grand performance of The Lonely Shepherd in Bucharest, Romania by Gheorghe Zamfir and Andre Rieu. The song that made the Pan Flute, and Zamfir, world famous.  

The Pan Flute Heads West and Enters the Digital Age
I have written previously in this article that the Pan Flute pupils of Fanica Luca, which included Zamfir himself – took refuge in the West, for the most part, fleeing the oppressive, dictatorial regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. Historically speaking, artists and intellectuals have had the hardest time living under totalitarian regimes, whereas the blue collar working class has not had such a problem with it. Not just Pan Flutists, but all kinds of Romanians with a conscience, who had disagreements with the Ceausescu regime, fled Romania, both before and after the fall of communism. I studied Pan Flute with Damian Luca at the University of Washington in 1976, which was back during the Ceausescu era; the head of the ethnomusicology department, Robert Garfias, had great difficulties getting Damian Luca and his fellow Romanian musicians out of Romania and to the University of Washington, but finally he did it. Although Damian Luca was officially in line with the Ceausescu regime, privately, he preferred the times when he was working gigs outside Romania, like when he was playing at the Alte Liebe German restaurant in Tokyo; I paid him a visit there while I was in Japan studying Shakuhachi.

Yes, there has been a massive diaspora of Romanians to the West, to Western Europe as well as to Canada and the United States. Many left Romania for religious reasons; finding out that Ceausescu used Orthodox priests as spies for the secret police, many Romanians converted to other Protestant sects and denominations, like the Seventh Day Adventists or the Pentecostals. But what the Pan Flutists who emigrated to the West were seeking was artistic freedom and opportunity. Damian Luca has told me that the Ceausescu regime’s patronage of Romanian folk music was not all bad, and had a beneficent aspect to it, in spite of the heavy ideological agenda involved in promoting “the people’s music”. Nevertheless, the call of freedom and opportunity to blaze one’s own artistic path proved to be irresistible to the vast majority of Pan Flutists, including my own teacher, Damian Luca. So where did the big name Pan Flutists emigrate to?

Gheorghe Zamfir, the King of the Pan Flute, took France by storm, and made his home in Paris; the match was made in heaven, because the French people loved Zamfir, and really patronized his music. Damian Luca settled in Brussels, which is a truly charming city with a French air; it is also close to Holland, where Damian Luca would go to teach Pan Flute at various music schools right over the border. Damian Luca really got involved in teaching the Pan Flute, continuing the pedagogic legacy of Fanica Luca, perhaps, writing his own practice pieces and putting together a whole educational curriculum. Nicolae Pirvu, another pupil of Fanica Luca, actually settled in Holland, which received many Romanian immigrants, and was also very active in teaching there. Every fall, there is a Romanian music festival in Holland. Switzerland has also been a great haven for Pan Flutists, as well as enterprising Swiss people interested in the Pan Flute, like Pan Flute craftsman Michael Dinner and Pan Flute school meister Dajoeri Murk, who not only makes Pan Flutes, but also has his own Pan Flute school. Switzerland was also home to Simion Stanciu / Syrinx, the Paganini of the Pan Flute.

Raluca Patuleanu, a gypsy lady Pan Flutist who also goes by the stage name of Roma Luca, has been active in concertizing, and has her own Taraf of gypsy musicians. She often holds Pan Flute master classes with the Norwegian Pan Flutist Roar Engelberg. Roar Engelberg has mastered Romanian folk music to such a high degree that a Romanian Pan Flutist friend of mine spent a whole evening marveling to me that Roar’s playing of Romanian folk music was just like the finest Romanian players, even down to the very heart and soul of it. Guitarist Jordan Herford, a Romanian émigré to Holland, and also an excellent Pan Flutist, holds Pan Flute master classes in Switzerland with Michael Dinner; he also holds the L’Esprit de Fanica Luca International Pan Flute Festival in Bucharest every year, which has unveiled some phenomenal and jaw dropping talent. Many other fine players of the younger generation have also settled in Western Europe, where they pursue performing and teaching careers. Don’t worry, grand daddy Fanica! The Pan Flute has not only survived – it has really blossomed and thrived!   

1. Fănică Luca
2. Gheorghe Zamfir