The Romanian pan flute is an instrument most often heard in folkloric settings, rarely outside its element. In the hands of Romanian expatriate Damian Draghici, it becomes something else again.
One of the world's virtuosos on his instrument, Draghici has pushed the envelope of technical aplomb, using a complex triple-tonguing method that led to his nickname, Speed of Light. He has found ways by bending notes to access the half steps between the standard notes of the pan flute's diatonic scale, enabling him to pursue his interests in classical music, jazz and other genres.
Joining him in concert Thursday at the Skirball Cultural Center will be Spanish guitarist Federico Ramos, Middle Eastern oud player Ara Dinkjian, and from the South Indian classical world, Trichy Sankaran, virtuoso of the percussion instrument the mridangam.
The Skirball concert will include folk-infused classical pieces by composers such as Bartok and Brahms, featuring Draghici with a string quartet.
"I just wanted to show to the Western public what the influences on classical composers have been," he said.
During his formative years in Bucharest, he followed his ear, ignoring conventional wisdom in terms of what the pan flute was about. Fascinated by classical music, he picked out the notes to tricky pieces by Paganini, Grieg, Bach and Mozart, soon becoming a renowned prodigy in Romania.
His earliest contact with the pan flute was fleeting, leaving him to his own devices.
"I learned it from my uncle, who just gave me two lessons," he said last week. "After that, he defected and left the country. That was it. I had to learn everything by myself. I had to buy LPs in Romania and learn from those."
He delved into music from different sections of Romania, including an obsession with the Transylvanian reed instrument called the taragodo.
"After awhile, I was listening to [taragodo players on] LPs and I was listening to it on the wrong speed, at 45 instead of 33," he said. "I would start to play whatever they did, double time. I developed this other technique, triple-tonguing. That's when they started calling me Speed of Light, because I was playing everything double-time."
Draghici's path led him to Greece.
"I went illegally, walking for four days and three nights through Yugoslavia," he said. "In Greece, I was begging in the streets for about one year as a pan flute player. Then somebody told me I should learn the keyboards."
As he already played the accordion, a normal thing in his family, the transition to playing keyboards was smooth.
After a lean period in Greece, Draghici's reputation began to spread. On a scholarship to Boston's Berklee College of Music, he realized his long-standing dream of coming to the United States and studying jazz. He and his wife, Jennifer, a vocalist, have lived in the San Fernando Valley for 1 1/2 years.
His diverse resume now includes work with the Sabri Brothers, Campy Segundo, the London Philharmonic, Howard Levy and Paul Winter. Under his own name, Draghici has made 14 CDs, including his first domestically available CD last year: "Romanian Gypsy Romanian Panflute Virtuoso" on the respected Lyrichord label.
Since arriving in Southern California, Draghici has worked a bit in film music but is more interested in pursuing his personal vision, which leans toward world music.
"I'm not even thinking of commercial success and potential, but just in terms of musical potential," he said. "These things help to show that music is just one. Music can unite us. There is nothing more powerful than music."
Damian Draghici, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Free admission. (310) 440-4500.