The Romanian Nai?
by Douglas Bishop
The pan flute form known as the Nai is the national instrument of Romania, and is considered to be a traditional instrument of the Romanian people. However, evidence that has surfaced during my independent research into the pan flute's history has recently caused me to challenge this view.
The picture on the left is a miniature that was painted in 1720 by the renowned Turkish artist Abdulcelil Celebi, who is also known as Levni. This artwork was painted during the reign of Ahmed III (1703 - 1730), the 29th sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and is in the collection of the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, Turkey.
The striking aspect of this artwork is its depiction of the pan flute being played by one of the women. In all major points of design (curved form, decreasing tube length and diameters, wood-shoe construction, bass tubes oriented to the right), this pan flute is clearly a Romanian nai (or so it would seem). This in itself is no cause for wonder, since the region that would become modern Romania was part of the Ottoman Empire, and commerce and exchange of ideas certainly occurred between the Ottoman Turks and the ancestors of present-day Romanians. However, one is inclined to pose the questions, "In what direction did the commerce flow? Was this particular pan flute form adopted by the Ottomans from the Romanians, or vice versa?"
There are several points that must be considered. First, the central position occupied by the pan flute player in the 1720 miniature strongly suggests this pan flute form was well-known among the musicians, artists, intellectuals, and cultural elite of the Ottoman Empire, at a time when the pan flute (in any form) was unknown to almost all in Europe (that is to say, the areas of Europe outside the Ottoman Empire). This artwork, which presents this pan flute form as a prominent part of a musical ensemble, pre-dates the rise to prominence of the Romanian nai in the early 19th century by 100 years.
Second, the earliest evidence of the nai in Romania appears during the 16th century - after the initial conquest of Romania's southern and eastern regions by the Ottoman Turks. During the same period, this pan flute form (known as "miskal" to the Ottoman Turks) was already known as a popular folk instrument, and it was being played on the streets and in the markets of Istanbul, and even in court music ensembles, as pictured here. Evidence of any pan flute form's existence in Romania prior to the Ottoman conquest can be traced and attributed to the contact of the Dacians (ancestors of modern Romanians) with the Greek Empire in the 7th century B.C. The pan flute form introduced to the Dacians by the Greeks, however, was the Greek syrinx, which differs from the nai in several key aspects (being straight-formed and employing a crossbeam-structure design, for example). The syrinx (known as the auenis among the Romans) was played among Dacian shepherds in the 1st century A.D., when they were described by the exiled Roman poet Ovid.
Finally, the pan flute existed in the Arab world under the names of "nei", "muskal" and "nei ou musigil", prior to the Ottoman occupation of Romania, and at a time when no proof of the nai's presence in Romania was evident. Interestingly, the name "muskal" also occurs in Romania as "muscal", as an older reference to the Romanian nai. It must be noted that the Arab word "nei", the Turkish "ney", and the Persian "nay" are now used when referring to the end-blown Arab reed flutes that consist of a single reed or cane tube, with finger holes. However, the translation of all three words is simply "reed pipe" or "reed flute". At least one of these words, "nei" is known to have been used to designate the Arab pan flute (muskal) as depicted in the 1720 Levni miniature. Evidently, "nei", "ney", and "nay" were interchangeable terms, used in a generic context, in a similar usage found today for the Spanish "zampoņas", or the English "pan flute". The uncanny similarity between the Arab word "nei" and the Romanian "nai" cannot be ignored.
Assuming the nai is truly Romanian in origin, what caused the Romanians to clearly adopt and modify a foreign name for their own native instrument? What is the original Romanian name of the nai, and why is this name not used today? Assuming that an original Romanian name for the nai once existed, why has this name not survived to modern times, as have the Greek, Roman, Turkish, and Arab names?
The Romanian words "nai" and "muscal" are clearly derivatives of the Arab and Ottoman words "nei", "muskal", and "miskal". Historically, words and names from foreign languages have been assimilated only when a given language (in this case, Romanian) has no equivalent word for a particular object, concept, etc. One can logically conclude that, as the Arab and Ottoman words for this pan flute form were clearly adopted and modified by the Romanians, it could only have been due to the adoption of a new thing (namely, the pan flute form now known as the Romanian nai) for which the Romanians previously had no name.